08/09/2011 01:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

Tisha B'Av: For Our Sins, We Were Exiled from the Land

Because of the strict lunar calendar to which Islam adheres, the fast of Ramadan occasionally can fall in the summer months, as it does this year. In the solar-lunar Jewish calendar there is always a summer fast in the northern hemisphere. Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the sixth Hebrew calendar month (this year beginning Monday night, Aug. 8), commemorates the traditional date of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and subsequently by the Romans. It is a day marked by the reading of the Book of Lamentations and the reenactment of strict rituals of collective mourning. In much the same way that Jewish tradition viewed the portable wilderness sanctuary, the mishkan, as the culminating moment of God's Creation, many saw Solomon's Temple as a microcosm of the geo-concentric universe. The destruction of sacred place and sacred space, resulting in exile and dispersion came to be viewed by many as the result of communal sin: mipnei hata-eynu galinu m'artzenu, for our sins were we exiled from our land.

"The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where could you build a house for Me, what place [makom] could serve as My abode? All this was made by My hand, and thus it all came into being" (Isaiah 66:1-2).

Simultaneously, the created universe is sacred space and sacred place. The Hebrew word makom is used to refer to God, connoting the space and place of the whole universe. Because makom is everything that is, place and space count. The world we inhabit is sacred. We are its stewards and guardians. Because of our sins, our desecration and despoliation, we witness in our own times the destruction of a universe. Mipnei hataeynu galinu m'artzenu, for our sins were we exiled from our land.

Traditional imagining suggests that the Third Temple will descend from a heavenly fire. Not so for the restoration of the created universe into which we were born. A rabbinic commentary on Ecclesiastes teaches, "When God created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, 'See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world -- for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it'" (Midrash Kohelet Rabba, 7:13).

Mipnei hata-eynu galinu m'artzenu, for our sins were we exiled from our land. There will be no replacement for what we have done and what we continue to do to our world. Perhaps, then, it would be both appropriate and fitting to acknowledge our sinfulness with the creation of an annual fast on or near April 21, the day before Earth Day, on which to lament our actions and our deeds; for the loss of sacred space and place and to seek the wisdom necessary to repair what we can and must.

A fast refocuses and redirects, turning our attention to ways in which we have failed to hit the mark. The Hebrew word for sin, het, reflects the roots from which it emerged. Originally an archery term, het means to miss the target, forcing us to take aim yet again. As we anticipate an annual fast, we must identify the environmental targets we set and reset for ourselves. As the environmental debate seemingly no longer occupies our elected officials, it is our homes, churches, mosques, synagogues and sanctuaries that must set an example for environmental responsibility and sensitivity, identifying ways in which we raise the bar for our families and our communities, responding to environmental imperatives. As God's agents and partners we can do no less.

Hashivenu Adonai v'nashuva hadesh yameinu kekedem, "Turn us to you, O ADONAI and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old" (Lamentations 5:21).