When I returned to New York from Jerusalem in 1984, many of my friends and relatives were surprised by how much I had changed. After all, I had departed as a young secular architecture student ten months earlier and had reappeared as an observant yeshiva student on a short break before returning to Israel to resume my studies. It’s not surprising that some of them had a tough time making sense of it all.
One somewhat condescending explanation was that I must have been looking for something more in my life, as if to suggest that maybe I just couldn’t hack it in the “real” world like everyone else. My response was to agree: Yes, apparently, I am looking for more, and if there is nothing more, maybe it is a sign of my inability to cope. But, on the other hand, if there is something more and you’re not searching for it, well then, what does that say about you…...?
I was, in fact, acutely aware that my choice to attend yeshiva instead of university was driven by a search for something more. I loved architecture as a profession, but I also wanted to make a difference in the world. In my mind, creating nice spaces for people to live, work and play in was certainly a good thing - and I still believe that architecture is a wonderful profession - but the more important issue for me had shifted to the nature and purpose of the lives that people would live in those spaces. In other words: Once I create nice spaces for people to exist in – then what? What’s the ultimate point of that existence?
I realize that I was hardly unique in asking this question: Even if we are fortunate to have a fulfilling profession that allows us to have everything that we desire; even if we enjoy loving relationships with our family and friends; even if we fill our leisure time with pleasant and productive activities; even if we donate some of our resources to important causes, we may, at times, still find ourselves wondering: What now? I work hard in school so that I can get a good job, so that I can put food on the table and a roof over my family’s head, so that my kids can go to a good school and get a good job…...
Perhaps the very fact that we even wonder about this is an indication that there is indeed something more.
According to Jewish tradition, not only is there more to life, but there was a time in our history when that “more” was far more visible to mankind. The existence of the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem for close to a thousand years, was always understood by us to be an outer manifestation of an inner spiritual clarity within the Jewish people themselves. It expressed our people’s understanding that the physical requirements of life are merely the foundation for the fulfillment of mankind’s true purpose as spiritual beings. It stood at a time when it was obvious that the human body is just a garment for mankind’s true essence, the eternal and infinitely precious soul. It stood at a time when we palpably felt that both our personal lives and world history were being guided by a loving all-powerful Infinite Creator. And most importantly, it reflected a clear understanding on the part of the entire nation that our ultimate purpose on earth was to enjoy a truly close relationship with that Being.
The mourning and sadness that we are meant to feel on Tisha B’Av is about far more than the loss of a building that stood more than two thousand years ago. It stems from the fact that we as individuals and as a people are no longer clear about our essence and purpose, and as a result, live in a world where the Divine Presence, the very point of it all, is no longer openly revealed. It’s the feeling of sadness we experience whenever we get in touch with that empty space within ourselves; whenever we realize, even for a brief moment, that we are not only missing something essential in our lives, but that we sadly, can’t even clearly identify what it is.
In order to avoid that sadness, we may fill our time with work and family responsibilities, and in our spare time with news, causes and entertainment, but the message of Tisha B’Av is that we would be better served by getting in touch with it. The sense that we are missing something is not only a powerful hint that there’s more to life; it’s the key to rediscovering our true essence and purpose and ultimately fulfilling our potential as individuals and as a nation.
Wishing you an easy and meaningful fast.