July 29, 2004
Temple Still Stands
Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:12)
"Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer." This was the father's sentence that broke the silence of my learning in the empty beit midrash in Jerusalem some five summers ago.
Yonah and his father had wandered into the beit midrash a few moments before, seeking information about the community and the neighborhood, since they were potential olim. I was alone in the building and had no choice but to be welcoming and helpful to them. I answered their questions about rent, shopping, demographics and even kindergarten possibilities for Yonah (things every rabbi needs to know). I blessed them with safe travels and fruitful decisions and prepared to return to my learning.
Then they were back. "Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer."
For a brief second I tried to avoid what I heard. You can tell adults anything (we rarely hear what is really being said to us), but children can only be told the truth. Children and teenagers both listen and hear; anything less than the truth is sinful. My anxious face cracked a smile as Yonah looked up at me and said, "Mimi, every day we pray for the rebuilding of the Mikdash [the Temple], and this morning my father took me to the Kotel [the Western Wall] and the Mikdash isn't there. Mimi, why isn't it there?"
I stared at Yonah thinking to myself, "Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the World]. I am sitting in front of a child who actually believes that You listen and answer prayers. Thank you for the gift of sitting in his presence."
And to Yonah I said in dismay, "What? It's not?!"
"No, it isn't," was his immediate response.
"Yonah, can you please do me a favor," I said to him, while inside I begin to pray like never before. He nodded. "Can you please close your eyes for a moment?" I asked.
Yonah obediently closes his eyes.
"Can you see it now?" I asked/prayed. He stood motionless. I waited and prayed, not knowing what he was seeing and what he would say, not knowing what the next step we would share was.
He smiled: "Yes, I can see it now."
"Now Yonah, I want you to open your eyes and I want to tell you a secret."
He stared into my eyes with trust I have rarely seen. Truth and trust are related, so I have learned.
"There are some things, Yonah, that you can only see with your eyes open. When you walk in the street you need to keep your eyes open because it is very important that you see where the sidewalk ends and where the street with the cars begins. You have to keep your eyes open in the street. But then there are things that are very close to our heart and very important to us. If we want to see these things, we can see them, but only with our eyes closed. If you want to see the Mikdash you can see it, but only with your eyes closed, not with your eyes open."
Yonah's smile reappeared and I began to breathe again. Yonah had taught me what I had come to the beit midrash to learn that morning and had failed to find in the books.
Vaetchanan is one of the few Torah portions that have a fixed time in the year for it to be read. It is always read on Shabbat Nachamu ("to be consoled," named after the opening words of the haftarah that we read this Shabbat) -- the Shabbat after Tisha B'Av -- after we have mourned the destruction of the Mikdash. Moshe beseeches God, endlessly, so much so that God has to tell him, "Enough!" Many sources work with the numeric value of the word "Vaetchanan" (515) saying that Moshe prayed 515 prayers or that he sang endless prayers to God (the Hebrew letters of the word shira, meaning song, also has the numerical value of 515). Moshe teaches us to never stop praying regardless of what our ears might or might not hear, regardless of what our eyes might see. Moshe reminds us that reality simultaneously includes and transcends facts when God is part of the equation of our life. And though Moshe was told that he would not enter into Eretz Yisrael so early on in the journey through the desert he truly understands that being in a relationship with God is about being able to stand in God's presence and pray, and request and beseech, regardless to the Divine response. Being able to hear the One and Only say "No" every day, or even hearing the supernal silence is also a gift from God.
"Nachamu, nachamu ami yomar Hashem Elocheichem" (Y'sha'ayahu / Isaiah 40, 1) "Be consoled, be consoled my people says Hashem your God." It is asked in the name of one of the Chasidic masters, why nachamu (be consoled) is repeated twice. He answers that the first nachamu reflects God consoling us, the second nachamu is us consoling God. The ability to be consoled by God and the ability to console God come from the wisdom that Moshe withheld while standing on the top of the mountain peeking into Eretz Yisrael and Yonah withheld while seeing the Mikdash as standing in that beit midrash.
Standing in the presence of God enables one to see oneself within a personal promised land -- despite the objective physical distance. Standing in the presence of God enables us to believe that our prayers are heard and our personal Mikdash has never been destroyed -- regardless of what our senses reveal.