The main thing to remember when asked to think about Tisha B’Av, which falls on this Sunday, is that the destruction has nothing to do with God. That is, everyone talks about God and fights in the name of God and claims ownership of God, but really, on a deeper level, this destruction is one that happened to people at the hands of people because of people’s actions.
The process of disintegration continued for years, for generations, stone after stone, speck after speck. The one who ultimately put it into action, who did the burning down, is much less important. To a large extent, the destruction that begins with the fast of the Tenth of Teveth, continues with the Seventeenth of Tammuz and reaches its peak on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), is a consequence of the disintegration of people’s trust in the symbols that purport to represent God in the world, the disintegration of people’s trust and commitment to the physical fulfillments of the big story, of which the Temple is only its representation; or, in a mirror image: turning the religious symbol, the means, into the end, into God.
As the Temple became more corrupt, as its priests became despised, as the rituals performed there were drained of their spiritual meaning, as the understanding sank in that what was happening there was no more than a game, a show, one motivated by completely different interests, one that continually tramples the values and truths in whose name it speaks – the more that understanding dawned on the ordinary folk whose faith in the big story is critical, whose commitment, manifested in taxes and deeds and willingness to fight, is critical, the more this penetrated the public consciousness, the more the Temple and the story it represents, that justifies its existence, began to crumble.
“How has the faithful city become a harlot?” the prophet Isaiah asks in the haftarah portion for “Shabbat Hazon,” which is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. How did the “faithful city” become a harlot? When is faithfulness replaced by harlotry? Only when a person has no faith in the system to which he belongs. Only when the values to which he is faithful betray him first, and prostitute themselves. Only when a person looks around him and no longer believes all the big words that are thrown at him. Only when he experiences again and again the widening gap between, on the one hand, the outwardly pious and pretentious pose and the deeds themselves, and, on the other hand, the reality.
The moment comes when those who are attuned to themselves, to others, to humankind, understand that the old story no longer holds water. That it has too many holes, too many hurts and injustices, too much whitewashing and closing of eyes and cynicism and foreign interests. That the disparity between it and life is too great, that even if people are still operating according to this old order, deep down they no longer believe in it, are not faithful to it, it does not truly shape their lives. This is the real moment of destruction. All destruction. Destruction of the story. Destruction of faith in the story. This is the transition point from faithfulness to harlotry.
And when this internal destruction occurs, when it overtakes a growing portion of the public, it is only a matter of time until it is also finds a physical manifestation. But this time is always deceptive. It is always packed with insecurity between what exists in reality – the Temple, sacrifices, religious priests, taxes, identity, life – and what the heart feels, knows, understands. Between the clinging to the past and the understanding that this is akin to clinging to a sinking ship.
And this is precisely the tremendous, radical power of Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai, who recognized the destruction before it occurred, who had to pretend to be dead, physically and metaphorically, in order to flee outside the walls, to ask Vespasian: “Give me Yavneh and its sages,” i.e., the old story is over. Give me a place, give me good people, together we will build a new (Jewish) story.