The spaces between: Living in the shadow of destruction
A reflection in the midst of ‘Bein Hametzarim’ on loss, renewal and the creation of a Torah of hesed.
In the Jewish calendar cycle we are in the midst of three weeks called “Bein Hametzarim,” “Between the Straits.” These three weeks are book-ended by the fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, which marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, and Tisha B'Av, the fast day where we mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is, according to tradition, a time to focus our attention on the loss of a national, cultural, and spiritual home for the Jewish people.
The destruction of the Temples had a deep effect on the collective Jewish soul but for many of us today, the historic devastation is little more than a mark on Jewish history’s timeline. However, there are still some profound and important lessons during this period of reflection and mourning today, even if the destruction itself feels distant and unmoving.
The Temple was, during some of Jewish history, at the center of Jewish life – it was the spiritual home, where people brought sacrifices and gathered to mark major calendar events and life circumstances. It’s centrality and importance could have meant the destruction would have led to a domino effect, where our people might have fallen apart, into despair because of their tremendous sense of loss. The people had watched the decimation and destruction of their physical and spiritual centerpiece and it would have been easy to lose their sense of people hood, commitment to serving God and tradition. Gone was their way of coming close to God, their way of celebrating our joys, and our means of atoning for our transgressions. They were largely spiritually homeless.
Their holy space, now in ruins, could have put at risk all that Judaism was. But that is not at all what happened.
Facing this devastating loss, our sages did something remarkable: they re-envisioned Judaism. They created a new center, built a tradition with new hope, comforting the people with a renewed Judaism; a Judaism where, in the words of rabbinic compilation, “hesed (loving-kindness) and prayer” were the new center of Jewish life and community.
The Midrash recounts the following story: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua, were walking near Jerusalem soon after its destruction. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said, “Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then his master Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of hesed. For it is written in Hosea 6:6: ‘Hesed do I desire, not sacrifice.’” A renewed Judaism, no longer based on the sacrificial system, but instead on a Torah of hesed. The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writes of hesed,
“Unlike a contract, it is an open-ended relationship lived toward an unknown future… hesed is the love that is loyalty and the loyalty that is love. It is born in the generosity of faithfulness, the love that means being ever-present for the other, in hard times as well as good; love that grows stronger, not weaker over time. It is a love moralized into small gestures.”
Facing destruction, the rabbis do not cower in the corner along Judaism and Jewish community to dissipate. Instead, they place Torah and deeds of hesed as the new center. A faith, a community based on deeds of deep love and loyalty where we are bound together by our presence for one another, for Torah and for God.
Though we may not be able to comprehend the utter devastation the community of the ancients felt, there are still meaningful lessons to be learned from this destruction. The rabbis teach us two crucial lessons about life and Judaism. First, each of us individually and collectively knows what it means to experience profound loss. In moment of deep failure it is often easier to remain in the depths of the darkness without hope, with a sense of purpose dwelling in the despair. Yet, the rabbis remind us not to dwell in the darkness but to move forth toward light. They teach us in these spaces between when nothing in life is certain, keep hope alive; even in our darkest hours, renewal can be on the horizon.
Second, within this renewed Judaism, Torah, not the Temple, becomes the center of Jewish life and our new spiritual home. We now, they teach us, dwell not in the Temple sacrifices but in the black letters and white spaces between of our teachings – we became a people of the book, learning and living Torah. Specifically, the concept of hesed becomes the center of the center. Our loyalty to one another, to Torah and to God become our ever present compass, helping to shape a Judaism rich and deep and utterly independent of any one “holy” space. Instead, it is focused on holy deeds.
And so, during this space “between the straits” - between the dark space - let us each reflect on these two crucial messages. While we mourn the loss of the Temple, we simultaneously celebrate the creative new world of Jewish communal life that, like a phoenix from the ashes, flourished from amid the destruction. The new spiritual development that arose after the destruction of the Temple allows us to inherit a Torah of hesed, reminding us as we face our own challenges today as a people that we too can face struggle and triumph using our Torat Hesed as a guiding force.
Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at www.keepingkavannah.blogspot.com.