When the Greeks sought to enter the Beis Hamikdash so that they could rampage and defile it, they feared to go in first. They turned to a fellow named Yosef Meshisa, a Yid who had sadly slipped far off the Torah path, and asked him to enter first.
“Whatever [vessel] you take is yours!” he was promised.
He entered, and emerged holding the huge golden Menorah.
The Greeks were chagrined by his choice.
“This is not something for a commoner to use,” they told him. “Go back inside and take something else, and that will be yours.”
He refused to go in again.
They promised him three tax-free years as a reward, but he refused.
“It suffices that I angered my G-d once; shall I anger Him a second time?” he asked rhetorically.
The Greeks seized him and tortured him to death. As he suffered indescribable torment he was heard screaming until his soul left his body, “Woe, woe [to me] that I angered my Creator.”
What happened? How was it that the same man who willingly entered the Beis Hamikdash to pave the way for the Greek invaders, the same man who dared to seize the holy Menorah and remove it from its place, should suddenly change so drastically? How did he go from being a willful sinner to a martyr who gave his life al kiddush Hashem?
The answer — attributed to the Ponevezher Rav, zt”l, and Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, among others — is that this was the power of the Beis Hamikdash! Even a Yid who had tragically fallen far from his roots, and had walked into this holy space with the worst of intentions, was jolted back into “real” life just by being there.
By the time he emerged, the short time he had spent within those hallowed walls had already affected him to such a degree that he readily gave up his life while doing complete teshuvah.
Today we mourn nearly 2,000 years of exile. As a nation, we have been tortured and persecuted in every imaginable and unimaginable manner. From the marauding Crusaders to the Spanish Inquisition, from Cossack pogroms to Nazi genocide, we have suffered more than any other nation on earth. But it is not only the ceaseless wounds inflicted on the collective body of our people that we mourn today, it is the spiritual decimation that we have endured.
Today, roughly nine out ten Yidden have never experienced the light of a true Shabbos or the delight of Torah learning. Even those of us who do merit to be counted among observant Jewry cannot imagine the closeness to Hashem experienced by Yosef Meshisa when he emerged from the Beis Hamikdash.
When the Emperor Franz Josef visited Yerushalayim, the benevolent monarch was accompanied by a group of local askanim. Arriving at Har Habayis, the askanim explained that Jews are not permitted to ascend to where the Beis Hamikdash once stood.
The kindly Emperor — one of the very few European monarchs who were kind to the Jews — was understanding, and the askanim waited for him at the foot of Har Habayis.
When the Emperor returned he told the waiting Jews, “If you would know what you are missing, you would not be able to survive it …”
The elders of Yerushalayim explained that as a king, Franz Joseph was allowed from heaven a tiny notion of the loftiness of the Beis Hamikdash …
The closer we feel to Hashem, the greater the ability to appreciate our loss.
I vividly recall spending the Nine Days in Camp Ohr Shraga, observing my rebbi, Harav Nesanel Quinn, zt”l, longtime menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaath.
Harav Quinn was famed for the ever-present smile on his face that lit up every room he entered. During the Nine Days, however, agonized mourning was etched deeply into his face.
Each year he would attempt to teach Megillas Eichah. I say “attempt,” because after explaining two or three pesukim he would begin to sob uncontrollably and go on for ten or fifteen minutes before apologizing to his talmidim and closing the sefer.
Yet on Shabbos Nachamu, leading the camp in spirited dancing, his face would shine again as he felt the consolation promised to us through the nevuah of Yeshayahu.
For as we mourn what we lost, we also look forward — may it be speedily in our days — to what we will regain.