I experience a different feeling in my gut when I see an empty space where a synagogue once stood than when I see a synagogue that stands empty.
There used to be a synagogue on Rivington near Ludlow, on the Lower East Side. I first saw the building when it was abandoned. I passed by today and it is no longer there. The street corner is named for the congregation’s long-time rabbi, but the sign is rarely noticed and it serves as no more than a plaque proclaiming that a synagogue once stood here.
When I saw the empty building, I could imagine filling it again with the sounds of Jewish life. I began picturing a vibrant center with constant classes and social programs. Even an empty building holds promise.
There is currently an empty lot where once hundreds of families would join for prayer, holidays, weddings, classes, and great events. The now empty lot is nowhere near large enough to contain all the tears that were shed on that spot. That valuable piece of real-estate cannot begin to approach the priceless prayers that were offered in that place. If all the souls that found succor in the synagogue were piled one atop the other in that now empty lot, the pile would reach the heavens, far higher than any building that will be erected. A library probably could not contain all the sermons, classes and words of Torah that were spoken in that place. The synagogue was far larger than the space on which it stood. The vacuum is far greater than the physical building that once stood there and any building that will eventually replace it.
The empty synagogue building seemed far larger than its physical measurements. The ruins of a once vibrant congregation at least offered a connection to the great achievements of the synagogue’s founders, members, and rabbis. But now, there is nothing left. A small apartment building just next to the empty lot has a stone arch with “Talmud Torah” engraved on it. The arch does not strike with as much violence at my gut as does the empty lot.
Abandoned; hurts. Demolished; hurts more. What about the synagogues that have been turned into churches? We need not travel to Poland to find such places. They are all over New York. You can find them in Harlem and the Bronx. My sister-in-law lives across the street from an apartment building in Montreal which has stained glass windows from the time it was a synagogue gracing bathrooms and bedrooms.
Which is Worse? Spiritual Greatness That Has Disappeared
Once again they ( Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah, R. Joshua and R. Akiba) were coming up to Jerusalem together, and just as they came to Mount Scopus they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. They fell a-weeping and R. Akiba seemed merry. Wherefore, said they to him, are you merry? Said he: Wherefore are you weeping? Said they to him: A place of which it was once said, And the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death, is now become the haunt of foxes, and should we not weep? Said he to them: Therefore am I merry; for it is written, ‘And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the Son of Jeberechiah.’
Now what connection has this Uriah the priest with Zechariah? Uriah lived during the times of the first Temple, while [the other,] Zechariah lived [and prophesied] during the second Temple; but Holy-Writ linked the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah, In the [earlier] prophecy [in the days] of Uriah it is written, ‘Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed as a field.’ In Zechariah it is written, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem,’ so long as Uriah’s [threatening] prophecy had not had its fulfilment, I had misgivings lest Zechariah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled; now that Uriah’s prophecy has been [literally] fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah’s prophecy also is to find its literal fulfilment. Said they to him: Akiba, you have comforted us! Akiba, you have comforted us! – (Makkot 24b)
The fox running through the area of the Holy of Holies bothered the rabbis more than the ruins of the Temple. They witnessed the disappearance of the sanctity of the Temple: “A place of which it was once said, ‘And the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death,’ is now become the haunt of foxes, and should we not weep?” This place was once so holy that anyone who entered improperly, even the Cohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, would immediately die, and yet now, even a wild animal can run there without fear. The holiest place on earth has lost its sanctity. How can such sanctity disappear? What happened to all the offerings made there? Did the service of the Cohen Gadol leave no mark? Is it possible that all those prayers are gone?
The rabbis saw the empty lot and they wept.
Rabbi Akiva saw the same empty lot and saw life. He perceived the seeds of redemption in the emptiness – the lost sanctity. He read Zechariah’s prophecy and found a promise that what once existed in that place was gathered up on high, treasured and protected. The countless offerings and prayers still existed as they did even when the Temple stood; free of physical boundaries and limitations. The physical loss would be restored. The spiritual accomplishments lived in the words of the prophets and in the Hand of God. The empty space of the Holy of Holies is not empty. It is transparent.
We weep and mourn on Tisha B’Av over the terrible physical and spiritual devastation that took place on this tragic day, but we never lose sight that the prayers and Torah and spiritual achievements of the countless victims of pogroms, crusades and the Holocaust, live on even today. We weep because we desire a world that is great enough to contain them.
Each time we pray the same words as those millions of Jews across the centuries and around the world, we declare that their prayers live.
Each time we study the same words of Torah as those millions of Jews across the centuries and around the world, we declare that their Torah lives.
Each time we observe the same Mitzvot as those millions of Jews across the centuries and around the world, we declare that their Mitzvot live.
Each time we chant the same Lamentations as those millions of Jews across the centuries and around the world, we declare our determination to build a world that can contain and reflect all those prayers, words of Torah, and Mitzvot.
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