When offering words of comfort to a mourner we reference the destruction of the Temple. The traditional invocation expresses our wish that the mourner be comforted “among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
It is generally understood that the two are connected because they both represent intense sadness and great loss.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik teaches a deeper message by interpreting the following Talmudic story:
When the Babylonian army attacked Israel they also had their eye on destroying the most precious place for the Jew. On the 9th of Av they burned down the first Temple in Jerusalem. At that tragic time the young priests climbed up to the top of the roof of the Temple and threw the Temple keys up in the air, saying, “Master of the Universe! Since we have not been true custodians, we return the keys to You!” At that moment, a heavenly hand, as it were, came down and took the keys” ( Talmud Taanit 29a).
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested a unique and uplifting insight: The reason God took back the keys was to eventually return them to us. The priests returned the keys to God in order that He hold them in safekeeping and have them readily accessible when the time would come to reopen the gates. Placing the keys in God’s hands symbolizes the hope – and the great faith – that the Temple would surely be rebuilt once again.
The Jewish people have never given up on the great dream of a magnificent future. God has never given up on that dream either; the keys were not lost, they are securely protected.
In the same way, by referencing the destruction of Temple to the mourner, we delicately express to the mourner a theme of hope and rebuilding. We want the mourner to know that the ‘keys’ always remain in the hand of God and will be used again in a future time. A time will soon come when the door will be unlocked for the bereaved and for all who have suffered. We will be blessed to see a new day which will bring redemption, and with it, comfort and peace.