One of my favorite rabbinic stories explains that love was the determining factor that led to the location of the ancient Jerusalem Temple.
The story is told that two brothers had each inherited half of their father’s farm. One of the brothers was married and had a large family; the other brother was single. They lived on opposite sides of a hill.
One night during harvest time, the single brother tossed about in bed. “How can I rest comfortably and take a full half of the yield, when my brother has so many more mouths to feed?” So he arose, gathered bushels of produce and quietly climbed the hill to bring them over to his brother’s barn.
Meanwhile, his brother across the hill also could not sleep. “How can I enjoy my full share of the produce and not be concerned with my brother? He is alone in the world, without a wife or children; who will support him in his old age?” So he arose in the night and quietly brought over bushels of produce to his brother’s barn.
When the next morning dawned, each brother was surprised to find that what they had given away had been replenished. They continued these nocturnal treks for many nights. Each morning they were astounded to find that the bushels they had removed had been replenished.
Then one night it happened. The brothers met on the top of the hill during their evening adventure. And there, they embraced.
God saw the love between the two brothers and said, “On this spot of mutual love I wish to dwell. Here My Holy Temple will be built.”
Millennia later a different story was being told about the same, sacred place.
The Roman army had laid siege to Jerusalem and was committed to taking the city and enslaving its citizens. But while the external threat posed by the Romans was real, it was only part of the ills that confronted our beleaguered community. Just as serious was the threat posed by the fact that the Jewish community was already at war with itself. There were three main competing factions within the Jewish community at the time. These consisted of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Siccari (Zealots). And while the story of the brothers was the tale of selfless love, the story of the Jewish community in the year 70CE was that of sinat chinam — deep-seated, groundless hatred between Jews who had different perspectives. In fact, a famous Midrash suggests the great teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai had to be smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin because the Zealots would not have let him leave. That is how bad things had gotten within the community.
The Romans were ultimately victorious and destroyed the Temple on Tisha B’av — the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. It was, according to tradition, the same day on which the first Temple was also destroyed. The rabbis of old however, ascribed responsibility for the destruction not to the Roman preoccupation with expanding their territory, but to the hatred between Jews. As we read in the Talmud:
Why was the first sanctuary destroyed? Because of three evil things which prevailed in there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. But why was the second sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time the people were occupying themselves with Torah, (observance of) precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as even more grave than the three sins of idolatry immorality and bloodshed together. (Talmid Yoma 9b)
The fact that one location could be the focus of two such different stories is no accident. The juxtaposition of the two narratives is a warning to us. It is a reminder that we have a choice.
We can be like those brothers. We can listen to one another. We can see each others’ needs. And we can respond with kindness and compassion.
Or, we can be like the Jews of the second Temple period and focus on our differences and disagreements.
The former path leads to something beautiful. It reminds us that a Judaism filled with love is a Judaism that can bring healing and holiness into our world, while the latter path ultimately leads us to destruction. Sadly, our community manifests far too much of the latter approach these days. The sharp disagreements over ritual observance, over our interpretations of our religious morals and the actions such morals require of us, and with regard to Israel, have once again set us on the path toward sinat chinam. They threaten our very survival from within.
At a time when the external threat of antisemitism is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime, we need to become those brothers. We need to put aside the pettiness that too often pervades our community. We need to learn to listen to one another with respect. And we need to work together to build a strong Jewish community. So tomorrow evening, as the commemoration of Tisha B’av begins, rather than mourn for the destruction of the Temple two millennia ago, let us use the day to recommit ourselves to the wellbeing of the Jewish people. Because if we don’t, no one else will.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen