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Tisha b'Av: Mourning the Veil over Nature's Design

Today is the 9th day in the Hebrew month of Av, a mourning day in Judaism called Tisha b'Av, meaning simply "9th of Av."

It's a fast day, meaning one without food or drink for a little over 24 hours. We've got another few hours to go and I am thirsty. Generally, the day is explained as commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, which both fell on this day centuries apart, along with other tragedies like the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 which also occurred on Tisha b'Av. Something I realized this year, however, bears on our discussions here and particularly the veiled way that the world's design gives witness to itself.

The Talmud (Nedarim 39b) includes a strange teaching about a series of creations that were from the beginning of existence, from the start of God's work in fashioning the world. One of those primordial creations, alluded to in a verse from Jeremiah (17:12), is the Temple. But didn't Moses and Jews build the original prototype, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, while Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem?

In his commentary on the elegiac songs (kinot) read in the Tisha b'Av liturgy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that in speaking about the "Temples" we are really designating a series of places and times when God's presence was most clearly revealed in the world. The first Temple was not the Tabernacle or Solomon's Temple, but the whole universe, all of nature itself.

Before Adam's sin caused God's revealed presence to withdraw from the world, God was far more manifest and unhidden than we can imagine now. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve could hear God's voice walking about, much as we catch sight all of the time of the people who live in our neighborhood. There were subsequent places and occasions when God became more manifest again. The tents of the Hebrew patriarchs, for example, were "Temples" in this respect.

But since the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the current era, God has been present yet hidden from his world. This is what we mourn on Tisha b'Av.

It is, I would suggest, the reason that a veil of obscurity lies somewhat over the design that we sometimes say is apparent in nature. Partly, it's what leads to these seemingly endless debates with people who insist the world gives no testimony to ultimate purpose. Yes such a purpose is evident in the sense that sophisticated scientific arguments are marshaled for it, inferences made, genuine evidence offered. Arguments for design are making headway in the culture. But slowly, painfully so, because we are up against opposing forces driven not solely -- let's be honest with ourselves -- by ignorance or malevolence.

The veil over design in the world may itself be a feature of that design, something willed by the designer. Only redemption will entirely lift it from our view, when the universe is revealed again as God's temple.