How We Choose to (Re)Build
Recent events have pushed us to examine the foundational structures of so much in our world. Previously unthinkable realities have called into question the stability of systems we believed to be stone-clad. On the global level, we never imagined a pandemic, fragile democracies or a multi-year war in Europe. In so many ways we have had to face the fact that what we thought would be around forever turned out to be unstable. Over and over again we have been surprised to see what might burn.
The second temple was built by King Cyrus. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 4a) teaches that despite this holy task, King Cyrus was actually wicked. He built the Temple, but he built it wrong:
Anyone with construction experience might ask: Why mix a layer of wood in with the three strong layers of stones? The Talmud explains his thinking:
Baked into this newly rebuilt Temple, this triumphant return to stability and permanence, is an escape, a possible take-back. Cyrus chooses to include a layer of wood to ensure the building remains flammable. If need be, he will burn it all down.
The Talmud labels this behavior as wickedness, but to me it feels like cowardice. Cyrus puts his fear first. He doesn’t fully commit to the Temple and instead keeps one eye on the exit. How often do we do this? We think we have made a choice to build something, to go down a certain path in life, but we build in weakness, in case we change our minds and want out. How much do we sacrifice through this behavior? What is lost when we let fear undermine the foundations we are building?
Cyrus shows us how not to build. The story is a warning. It’s also confusing. The Temple has such specific instructions. There never was a building with more detailed blueprints inside and out— nevermind the fact that this is version number two of a structure, intended to be built to essentially the same specifications as the First Temple. How, then, could this vulnerability have been unique to the Second Temple? The Talmud asks this question:
This time we hear from Kings I (6:36):
The Talmud answers: King Solomon, in contrast to Cyrus, placed the wood above the stone foundation, so that even if the Temple were burned, the foundation would remain. Solomon built God’s house to be sturdy. The Talmud elaborates that not only did he build with stone on the bottom, but he went to other lengths to make the building less flammable: sinking the wood into the stone, and covering the wood in layers of plaster. Solomon built his temple to last.
We learn from Cyrus that some things were built to burn. And we learn from King Solomon that it doesn’t have to be that way. When life presents a time for building, we have the opportunity to choose our approach. We can choose to build in a way that leaves ourselves and the next generation vulnerable, or we can be hyper-intentional about building with stones on the bottom. We can go out of our way to plaster. Spare no expense. We can strive to be brave enough to build something that will last.
The Talmud offers us this beautiful story of sustainability and building for the future, however, without mentioning one enormous detail: that both Temples were destroyed. R. Benay Lappe’s most well known teaching is referred to as her “Crash Talk.”1 She learns from the destruction of the Temples that every story will eventually and inevitably crash. Ultimately, this is true. Even when we build and live with the goal of being excellent ancestors, we cannot always prevent destruction. The crashing of what we thought was unshakable will continue to be part of history, part of life.
But that doesn’t mean we should despair. R. Lappe teaches that, even when faced with a crash, we will always be left with options for how to move forward. We can choose to rebuild, taking the best of what has been destroyed, and adapting for the challenges that lie ahead.
The prophet Isaiah (54:10) makes a related point about what lies on the other side of destruction, in a love letter from God:
The mountains will crumble
And the hillsides will fade away,
But my love for You
will not end.
Isaiah affirms that everything will fade, even mountains. As we learned from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, even the stone layers can crumble. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is eternal. Even amidst the destruction, God’s love for us remains. Even amidst a moment of crash, we have the opportunity to look around and see what has endured. We get to decide what to take with us into our rebuilding project. What will we refuse to leave behind?
We start from a place of wholeness, with the teki’ah, and as we move through teshuvah we allow the brokenness to reveal itself. Shevarim are the fault lines we always knew were just below the surface. Teru’ah is the crumbling when we reach down to the depth. He teaches that if we can stay the course—if we continue to move through the process—we find that below the shattered layer of teru’ah is another teki’ah, another kind of wholeness. A great foundational wholeness, a teki’ah gedolah.
Horowitz offers us an entirely different perspective on the task of rebuilding after a crash. Perhaps all of the crumbling and breaking in this world will yield a sturdier foundation on which to build anew.
In the next line of the love letter in Isaiah, God promises us “יסַדְתִּיךְ בַּסַּפִּירִים - foundations of sapphires.”
Rebuilding after a time of destruction will always be scary. We can never really know if what we build will last. But let us make the commitment to build with our whole hearts. When we clear away the crumbling stones, let’s find what is eternal and carry it with us. And let’s pray that the structures we build, and the lives we lead, will stand on sturdier ground.
Tzom kal - have an easy and meaningful fast.
1 You can watch this full talk on YouTube.
2 Listen here on YouTube.