The God in which the Jewish religion believes can best be described in the way the Kabbalah describes Him — Ein Soph, Endless. He is present everywhere and in everything, “Surrounding all worlds and Filling all worlds”. It is nearly impossible for a single grain of sand in the vast desert of the cosmos to relate to that Infinity, and as such, He gave us ways to connect to him. In this desert, He gave us several modes of communication.
For individuals, our prayer is like a walkie-talkie, with limited range and efficacy. For congregations, prayer is a cell phone with weak reception, and prayer in places that the community has declared important, where the masses gather to pray (The Kotel, Mearat HaMachpelah), becomes like a strong cell phone, but with frequent disruptions in the signal. All of these things work, it is a question as to how well. But in this desert, there is only one land-line, one place where prayers are guaranteed to be accepted at all times, from the mouths of individuals or communities, from Jew or gentile. That land-line is the Temple Mount. In future times, our faith tells us, we will have an even more direct connection, like a Skype conversation with perfect internet connectivity, and that will be the Temple itself.
You might wonder why this is coming up now. Last week, before Tisha B’Av, I read a piece by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, and was greatly upset by it, to the point that I felt I needed to react, because I think Rabbi Cardozo, with all due respect to him and his indisputable genius, has missed some crucial points about the Temple, which he claims is “of little significance”, and I feel that in this discussion, first and foremost we must discuss the importance of the ground on which that Sacred Structure was built. After that, we can discuss other matters of the article, but first, let’s deal with the foundations of the Temple, the mountain on which it stood.
Mystics speak of a “spiritual footprint” which is left in places where spiritual energies are concentrated or were concentrated in the past. The Midrash speaks of the Temple Mount being the place of Adam’s altar, perhaps not because Adam really built an altar there, but because the spiritual energy had been built up there since time immemorial. Mount Moriah was where Isaac was bound in Abraham’s ultimate test of faith. It was purchased by David from Aravnah the Jebusite, a peaceful transaction, as opposed to other acquisitions of the Holy Land, which had to be done through war and conquest.
The Mount was set aside to be the rock of mankind’s faith, the cornerstone of monotheistic worship, to symbolize man’s trust in God, and to be a place of peace, unity, and acceptance for all flesh. Even without the Temple, the Mount in and of itself remains sanctified, the most holy patch of ground on Earth. To this day, treading on the Mount must be done through proper conditions of purity and solemnity, with no place for joking and idle chatter. According to the Rambam (whose ruling is accepted by those who ascend the Mount), entering certain areas of the Mount bears the same penalty as eating on Yom Kippur: Spiritual Excision. To claim that such an area has lost its significance seems to undermine the halachic status of the place.
Now the Temple itself. Rabbi Cardozo postulates that the sacrifices were the focus of the Temple, the main worship done. Sacrificial work was no doubt essential to Temple service, but was this parcel of Land dedicated for the sole purpose of sacrifice? And even if it were, is that such a bad thing?
Let’s begin with the latter. Our modern world rejects sacrifice, as well as other such forms of worship, and considers them cruel, insensitive practices, reflected by the recent banning of sacrifice at the Gadhimai festival in Nepal. The Rambam’s approach, no doubt one of the early authorities to which Rabbi Cardozo referred, would definitely seem to imply that sacrifice was apropos for a group of people just liberated from a pagan culture, not yet used to the monotheistic vision of worshiping the Infinite, the Metaphysical, by means of the powers we possess which most closely resemble infinity and meta-physicality: Our words and thoughts. However, those who believe the Rambam thought such practice to have an expiration date are mistaken. When the Rambam describes the Messianic age, he brings the renewal of Temple sacrifice as an indicator of the authenticity of one who claims to be the Messiah (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:1).
Perhaps the Rambam believed that although the initial reason for sacrifice was to allow the public to relate to God in a familiar fashion, eventually those sacrifices would take on a completely different meaning for a later generation. Think about the Genesis narrative as an example of a passage which had one meaning at one time and took on a different meaning to a later generation like our own. The Infinite nature of the Author of the Torah means that His Work contains infinite connotations, infinite meanings, infinite interpretations. The work of sacrifice might not have the same meaning to us as it had to those who left Egypt, but no doubt that it can still be meaningful.
Perhaps our generation can view the work of sacrifice as the complete submission of nature to God, or some other inner meaning. After all, failure to perform the Passover Sacrifice carries the same penalty about which we spoke before: Excision. If failure to offer a sacrifice can bear the same penalty as the violation of Yom Kippur, our holiest day, surely it is to be thought of as incredibly significant. Halacha tells us that even the thought of consuming flesh from a sacrifice outside of the time limits provided by Jewish Law has the power to disqualify the offering. Clearly this is no simple service of the body, but of the mind as well. I believe our nation, when the time is right, will manage to find new meaning in the service of sacrifice, even if its original meaning has faded from our time.
But who is to say that the central point of the Temple is sacrifice? Let us remember that the Temple was the site of Haqhel, the gathering of the people every seven years to reteach the law and bestow upon them a sense of unity. The Temple was the center piece of the Shalosh Regalim, the three holidays of pilgrimage, which drew thousands to Jerusalem. In settings like these, the purpose seems to not be sacrifice, rather the creation of a space in which the people could unite and engage with one another. No doubt the people united in this place, and their hearts all became one as they came to serve God together.
And how can we forget the importance of the Bikkurim, the first fruits that one would bring, and declare one’s nation’s history as they were given to the priest in that place? National identity is built on the foundation of the Temple as sure as the Temple is built on Moriah. And are we to believe that the songs of the Levites were simply to make the sacrificial work more entertaining? Are we to think that the Lishkat HaGazit, the Chamber of Hewn Stone where the Sanhedrin sat and dispersed Torah to the people, was less important than the Inner Sanctum of the Temple itself?
The Temple was not about sacrifice. It was about unity. It was the heart of our people, and it was the foundation of their faith and identity. There they found inspiration, there they taught their children about the covenant with God, and there they reminded themselves of their dependence on God and the kindness He had done them. When Solomon described the Temple in his prayer during the dedication (I Kings 8), he spoke not of sacrifice, but of prayer. It was the place of calling out to God for all nations, it was the place to sense the presence of the Infinite within the finite.
Rav Shteinzaltz speaks of the Temple on Moriah representing the same thing as tefillin on the forehead. Both are placed in an area where divine inspiration is funneled, and serve simply as an indicator and enabler for the divine influence, except that the latter is the funnel for spiritual influence on the body, and the former is the funnel for the world entire. Good deeds are certainly the focus of our religion; Rabbi Akiva’s statement (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b) that “Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is a great rule in the Torah is not to be taken lightly. However, ethical monotheism is not the only goal of our religion. Our religion is about sanctifying the physical, making the mundane consecrated. And the link between the Heavenly Realm, the source of sanctity, and our realm, the subject of sanctification, is the Temple.
When the Land of Israel is described, the Torah calls it, “A Land on which the ‘Eyes’ of Hashem your God are constantly, from the beginning of the year until a year’s end” (Deuteronomy 11:12). But when God speaks of the Temple, He says that His “Heart” and “Eyes” will be present there at all times (I Kings 9:3). “Home is where the Heart is” can not be expressed more accurately than it is in this instance by God Himself. This building is the way to accessing the “Heart” of the Life Force of all worlds. If we are to find meaning in a physical world, we need to stimulate that Heart, to find that funnel, to reconnect our sacred land-line to the Creator and Maintainer of all worlds.
Whether it is within our power to reconnect it these days, or whether we will need to wait for a different age or higher understanding for that to occur, is another discussion entirely. However, the prayers of Jewish people for hundreds of years have included the desire for a restoration of Temple services. A manuscript of Shemoneh Esreh from the Cairo Genizah reads, “Find favor, Eternal our God, and reside in Zion, and your servants shall serve you in Jerusalem, Blessed are You, Eternal, Who we shall serve reverently.” The text clearly implies a need for the Temple in order to truly serve God reverently. Man is not a creature of only the mind, and therefore his body must be employed as well in the service of his Creator.
Because the only emotion that exists in the realm of the metaphysical is love (For, if God did not love us, why would we be here, and if He loves us, is not everything then the product of that love?), we must dedicate that which is uniquely a part of our world, reverence, and that can only be accomplished through the physical work and awakening of the body. Simple service of the spirit will not suffice.
The Temple is, and has always been, of utmost importance, and will continue to be so, until that day when “The Mountain of the House of the Eternal will be ready, at the head of mountains, and raised above hills, and all nations shall flow to it” (Isaiah 2:2).