Looking at the empty space, I felt a sadness similar to what I imagine someone might experience seeing a vacant lot where his or her childhood home once stood. My epiphany occurred in Israel’s Tower of David, while observing a miniature model depicting Jerusalem shortly after the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.
Tisha b’Av, which begins on Monday evening and commemorates the annihilation of the First and Second Temples, was barely on my radar, as the events marked by the communal fast day seemed remote from contemporary Jewish life. Yet my emotional response to the model’s unfilled space demonstrated the power of Tisha b’Av and its relevance to today’s world.
All this came to light while I was in Israel recently with my wife and daughter to see my in-laws and took a morning to visit the Tower of David. The site is now a museum of Jerusalem’s history, with several models depicting the city’s layout through different eras.
The replicas of Jerusalem during the time of King Solomon’s Temple and following its destruction had little impact on me, as we can only guess what that Temple looked like from sketchy biblical sources. It was difficult to mourn the passing of an era we know so little about.
The Second Temple era is far better documented than that of its predecessor. The model of Herod’s architectural achievement and the exhibit’s description of Jewish life at the time made me yearn for the sense of destiny that surely came with having all of Judaism gathered near God’s sanctuary on earth.
Moments later, still enthralled by my visceral reaction to the Temple, I was jolted by the model with the vacant lot. The immense promise of having God and his Chosen People — my people — linked so closely in time and space had been abruptly deleted, leaving nothingness in its wake. I suddenly discerned an absence within me that I intuited could never be filled.
My despair morphed into acceptance when I continued the exhibit and encountered a model of Jerusalem during Islamic rule, when the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque were built on the Temple Mount. A flash of recognition ran through me. The Jerusalem skyline dominated by the distinctive golden dome (although when originally built it was a duller hue) was the city I knew; a merging of the past and present that places my Jewishness in historical context, as no other place has done.
A Jerusalem without the dome, without the intersection of Islam and Judaism, would be an unfamiliar place. I still yearned for what I imagined was the purity of the Second Temple era, but I had reconciled with the fact that my Jewish identity was forever entangled in the cyclical history of destruction and rebirth that has defined my religious heritage.
Nonetheless some zealots have advocated destroying the Temple Mount’s Islamic landmarks and building a Third Temple, to bring forth the messianic age. Such ideas strike me as reflecting a desperate desire to turn back the clock to before 70 CE — to purge Jewish history of the Temple’s destruction, the scattering of the Chosen People and the centuries of suffering that followed those events. But no matter the future of the Promised Land, the Jewish psyche will remain captive of the Jewish past.
It was the sorrow of that past that bubbled up in me when I faced the empty space in the model of Jerusalem. This deep-seated pain has mostly been dormant, arising only when I have been confronted by symbols of Jewish communal mourning: the pile of children’s shoes at Yad Vashem; memorials to terror victims and fallen IDF soldiers; the ruins of long-gone Yiddishist and Sephardic communities.
But the ache I felt in the Tower of David has continued to linger, like a dull throbbing in my soul.
From this perspective Tisha b’Av commemorates something greater than an ancient tragedy. It acknowledges the power of the original Jewish injury — the opening salvo in the formation of a collective nostalgia, shaped by generations of loss. The persistence of this layer of grief in people like myself, who have never experienced the loss associated with our faith, demonstrates how primal the sadness is.
After exiting the Tower of David I walked towards the Kotel, trying to take solace in the bustling crowd marked by kipas and prayer books — proof that we have reclaimed our ancient capital. But the scene failed to lift my mood, confirming that Jerusalem and Judaism itself is too burdened by the harsh twists of history to ever fill the empty spaces within us.
Ben Krull, a frequent contributor, is an attorney in Manhattan family court.