When Longing is the Relationship
We mourn the destruction of the Temple by fasting not once, but four times a year, on four different mandated fast days. The days are alluded to in the biblical book of Zechariah (8:19), and codified in two places in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b, Ta’anit 26b).
Each of these dates marks a different moment in the unfolding story of the destruction of the Temple. Like most major hardships of history, the destruction happened in stages, and we mark key moments: the date the governor Gedalliah was killed (3 Tishrei), the date Jerusalem was besieged (10 Tevet), the date the walls of the city were breached (17 Tammuz), and finally the ultimate destruction of the Temple itself (9 Av).
The need to mourn in stages is not unique to the temple. Those who mourn tremendous losses know that the rupture is ongoing and often cannot be contained by marking a single anniversary. For losses too deep to be remembered only at a yahrzeit, we often set ourselves several important dates. When was the last celebration we shared? When did they first get sick? When did hospice start? When was the last time we spoke? Marking several dates can be painful, but also sometimes enlivening. The annual moments of memory provide ongoing connection to relationships that would otherwise begin to fade. They allow us to keep the memory alive and ever present. To love someone who has died is to be in a constant state of longing for them. The longing is the relationship. By observing multiple anniversaries we allow the dead to remain “צְרוּרָה בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים - bound up in the bonds of life” (I Samuel 25:29).
The same can be true of remembering and mourning traumatic events. We ask each other where we were when we first heard the news, or mark the historical shifts that led to the catastrophe, even if we couldn’t have anticipated at the time where they might lead. We mark these anniversaries with formal and informal rituals like moments of silence, or calling a friend who was with us at the time.
These four mandated fast days provide us an opportunity to remain connected to the Temple. But they also offer us something different: a way to mourn our personal distance from God. The loss of the Temple is not merely the loss of a building or a system of ritual sacrifice, neither of which may feel like real losses to us today. Mourning the Temple is an opportunity for us to admit that God feels distant, and to allow ourselves to really feel that distance, to acknowledge the pain of divine absence. With this lens, these four fast days can offer us a map for how we long for God and mourn our distance.
The Talmud suggests that, just as the Temple was destroyed in multiple stages, perhaps God’s distance from us also happened in stages. Rosh Hashanah 31a offers what can only be described as a poem, imagining the gradual loss of intimacy and closeness to God as the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) leaves the Temple:
Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 31a
The Shekhinah traveled ten journeys based on verses:
from ark cover to cherub;
and from cherub to cherub;
and from cherub to threshold
and from threshold to courtyard;
and from courtyard to altar;
and from altar to roof;
and from roof to wall
and from wall to city;
and from city to mountain;
and from mountain to wilderness;
and from wilderness she ascended and rested in her place,
as it is stated: “I will go and return to My place” (Hosea 5:15).
תלמוד בבלי ראש השנה לא.
עֶשֶׂר מַסָּעוֹת נָסְעָה שְׁכִינָה מִקְּרָאֵי:
וּמִמִּדְבָּר עָלְתָה וְיָשְׁבָה בִּמְקוֹמָהּ —
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אֵלֵךְ אָשׁוּבָה אֶל מְקוֹמִי״.
The Temple offered us an intimacy with God that we don’t feel today. The talmudic poem paints a heartbreaking picture of God’s departure from the Temple, from our city, and from our natural world. We can almost picture the Divine Presence flying out from the ark, and then moving slowly outward and upward. With each painful step the Shekhinah moves a bit further from us until, in the end, God has returned to God’s place in the heavens, and we are left alone.
Although we may find moments of closeness to God, many of us spend most of our lives in this place of distance and longing. We yearn for ongoing connection to a God who feels far off and unreachable.
These fast days can offer us a chance to mourn our distance from God the same way we mourn the loss of a loved one who has died. They are annual opportunities to find our way back into relationships that persist through absence and mourning. These four days of fasting allow us to notice God’s absence and in doing so, to hold onto—and even grow—our connection to God.