When Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l passed away, there was universal mourning in the Torah world. Everyone understood that an era had passed and we had lost someone irreplaceable. Standing in a corner near the yeshiva was a sweet but ignorant beggar, crying bitter tears. Someone thought to ask him, “Yossel, why exactly are you crying so much?” The Bnei Brak supplicant answered simply, “Because every day, when the rosh yeshiva came out of the bais medrash, he gave me a shekel.”
One of the maspidim at Rav Shach’s levayah exclaimed that often we cry for our loss, but that doesn’t mean that we appreciate or recognize the gravity of our forfeiture. Our gedolim over the centuries have taught us that one of the purposes of these days of aveilus is to realize what we have lost so that we can learn to yearn for its return. Without that, even our tears are insufficient and cannot help us restore what is missing in our lives.
Chazal tell us, “Whoever mourns for Yerushalayim will merit and see (vero’ah) its joy” (Taanis 30b). Rav Elya Lopian noted that the Gemara does not promise that “he will see its joy.” The language used is that of the present. This means, explains Rav Elya, that the fact that a person is truly in mourning for the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh is the most dramatic proof that he not only experiences its loss, but that even now he spiritually lives with the concept and holiness of the Bais Hamikdosh itself.
There was a very religious man from Herzliya who used to visit the Steipler Gaon zt”l periodically. On each occasion, he would pour out his heart to the tzaddik about the spiritual wasteland in his city. “Rebbe,” he would lament, “I simply can’t stand the chillul Shabbos, the lack of tznius, and other infractions of Yiddishkeit.” The Steipler would always console him with the fact that even in secular Herzliya, it is important for the residents to see the image of an old-time Jew. A few years passed without a visit from the Jew from Herzliya. One day, the Steipler met him at an event in Bnei Brak. “Where have you been?” asked the Steipler. “Boruch Hashem,” the Yid responded, “the rebbe’s brachos were fulfilled. I’ve become accustomed to the situation.” This time, the Steipler trembled visibly. “You have become accustomed? You must move immediately to Bnei Brak.”
If we become jaded and complacent in our condition of being without a Bais Hamikdosh and korbanos, that is actually the greatest tragedy of all. Let us therefore try to rejuvenate in ourselves the ancient glory and gift that Hashem granted us for almost a millennium, the beneficence of the Bais Hamikdosh. The degree to which we truly miss the Bais Hamikdosh will ultimately determine our spiritual condition as well.
First of all, let us return to Esther Hamalka’s momentous visit to Achashveirosh. We must remember that she had not been summoned, her life was in mortal danger, and the king did not yet know of her background or religion. The king extends his scepter to her and promises her everything up to half his kingdom, which Chazal (Megillah 15b) explain to be “everything but the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh.” Many meforshim wonder: What possessed Achashveirosh to even mention the Bais Hamikdosh when at the time he had no reason to assume that Esther had any interest at all in its rebuilding? The answer is that even the gentiles knew of the tremendous power of the Bais Hamikdosh when it stood proudly in its full glory.
The posuk (Eichah 4:12) relates that “the kings of the world did not believe, nor did any of the world’s inhabitants, that the adversary or enemy would enter the gates of Yerushalayim.” Everyone thought that the Bais Hamikdosh’s sanctity made it impenetrable. If someone committed a sin at night, the next day he immediately offered a sacrifice and was restored to his pure state (Yalkut, Tehillim 755). During the first Bais Hamikdosh, if anyone had any doubts about the power of Hashem, he simply needed to be brought to the Bais Hamikdosh, where he could view open miracles every day (Pirkei Avos 5:7).
The same for a teacher with a student or class with doubts. A short class trip to the Bais Hamikdosh alleviated all doubts when the ten miracles of the Bais Hamikdosh were witnessed. The ashes of the parah adumah offered purity to every Jew who had become defiled, and even in later generations, when the ashes and “chatas water” were no longer generally available, there were exceptions we no longer enjoy. Thus, the Chida writes that Eliyahu Hanovi anointed the Arizal with the secret stash of ashes, as did the Arizal to Rav Chaim Vital, so that they could perform their holy work in total purity. That, too, we have lost.
These days, everyone perks up when the rabbi mentions that he will offer a segulah for parnassah. But when the Bais Hamikdosh stood, all parnassah came from menachos sacrifices. The Gemara (Brachos 3b) relates that when the chachomim went to Dovid Hamelech to provide parnassah for his people, they complained that “the kometz does not satisfy the lion.” Although the simple explanation of these words is that they were indicating that the economy was providing insufficiently, the Maharsha elucidates that the sages were reminding Dovid Hamelech that since the Bais Hamikdosh had not yet been built, there was no kometz, a crucial part of the korban mincha, to provide sustenance for Klal Yisroel.
The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 4:4) explains why the Bais Hamikdosh is likened to the neck. “The major seat of life is in the neck,” he explains, “since both the esophagus and the trachea are located there. This is the part of the body that represents how the physical serves the spiritual. Here the body receives its food and sustenance, which, in turn, allow the body to perform spiritual acts and serve Hashem. The Bais Hamikdosh, too, appears to house an endless array of physical actions: slaughtering of animals, lighting fires, throwing of blood. But in truth, these actions sustain the entire world.” Furthermore, on Sukkos, 70 sacrifices were offered for all the nations of the world. The Bais Hamikdosh connected the upper and lower worlds through its divine service. In the Gemara, the term of choice for an inevitable action is “Pesik reisha velo yomus? Is it possible to sever the head of a live creature and for it not to die?” The Bais Hamikdosh was our head, allowing us to function as the glorious creature we were supposed to be. Without it, we are truly not really alive, unless we live the Bais Hamikdosh in our mind and heart, especially during these days that commemorate its destruction. For this reason, we recite in the concluding blessings of the haftorah, “Have mercy upon Tzion, for it is the source of our life.” The blessing goes on to proclaim that “exiled and without the Bais Hamikdosh, we are in a state of humiliation and despondency.” Here, too, we remind ourselves at the Torah that without the Bais Hamikdosh, we are but a shadow of our true selves.
The metaphor of the neck is actually an ancient one, appearing in the Torah (Bereishis 45:14), when Yosef and Binyomin wept on each other’s necks. Rashi reveals that they were crying over the Botei Mikdosh that would later be built and destroyed in their territories. Indeed, the necks of Yosef and Binyomin represented, as does the Bais Hamikdosh, this intricate relationship between the gashmiyus and ruchniyus of Klal Yisroel.
The degree to which we have almost lost entirely our ability to mourn over the churban may be illustrated with a story that happened a number of years ago and awakened many hearts at the time. It would seem appropriate to review it at this time. This is the version of the incredible event of which I heard.
After the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Eretz Yisroel, many of the new refugees were placed into Torah schools. One day, a tall, distinguished-looking Ethiopian father arrived at his son’s school with an uncharacteristically frown on his face.
“What is the matter, Mr. ___?” the principal inquired of the usually happy and mild-mannered man. The new immigrant responded, holding his son’s hand tightly, “My son here said that the rebbi told the class a lie yesterday.”
The menahel was shocked, but remained calm. “What lie did the rebbi say?” he inquired.
“He told the class,” the father related in hushed but aggravated tones, “that there is no longer a Bais Hamikdosh, that it had been destroyed.”
It suddenly dawned upon the principal that the Ethiopians had been taken into golus before the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed. They lived for centuries and indeed millennia not knowing of Chanukah, Purim or the churban. Gently, he invited the agitated father to sit down and recounted to him the history of Klal Yisroel, which his people, and apparently all of shevet Don, had missed. With tears in his eyes, the father tore his own clothing and that of his son, sat down on the floor, and wept for over an hour, mourning the tragic news of the churban.
We, too, can learn to yearn from this Ethiopian father, for whom the churban was so real and immediate.
But we must also yearn to learn about the glory of the Bais Hamikdosh, so that we can mourn properly.
A good place to start might be to join the learning of Seder Kodshim with Daf Yomi, allowing us to spend at least a few moments a day in the kedusha and inspiration of the Bais Hamikdosh. That way, we will not mourn over Rav Shach only because he gave a shekel for tzedakah, and we will understand at least a bit of the great loss of the Bais Hamikdosh long ago.