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Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: Gathering

People like to gather. We do so for all sorts of purposes – sporting events, concerts, arts festivals, farmers’ markets etc. – and in each of these cases, part of what we get out of it has nothing to do who else is there.  In principle, you could watch a javelin throw or buy a melon or listen to a great piece of music all by yourself, but talking this way about doing so sounds comical for very good reason.

Of course, in reality, we care who else is there.  There is something visceral and animal in us, on the one hand, and at the same time something supremely elevated and uniquely human, on the other, in the psychological dynamic of what joining a crowd does to us.  There must be many aspects to what attracts people to enjoying spectacles together in large groups, but surely one of them is that we feel like the presence and participation of so many other individuals like us must make the activity at hand a good one that everyone approves.  One of the strongest desires the social animal inside us has is to have its choices and actions validated by a community around us, and physically joining a crowd gets us a good dose of that feeling for free.

In the case of the mikdash (temple) the point is to harness and magnify that feeling in an environment that combines celebration of our shared national life in our land with repentance and gratitude towards the One who created all of it.  To achieve this, the mikdash is all about and only about life.  An elaborate structure of laws ensures that anything to do with death is out of the picture: individuals who have been in the presence of death must purify themselves before approaching, kohanim (priests) are mostly barred from visiting graveyards, and their sacrificial food cannot be consumed if it has come in contact with the impurity of death or related things.  In this special place where Elohim Hayyim (the Living God) is worshipped, it is life that is affirmed and revered.

It is often observed that Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt) was the opposite: death was the hallowed portal to the sacred, and the most monumental social and architectural projects there revolved around death and burial.  This idea may be hinted at in the Torah itself, for when the Israelites scout the land in Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), the text makes a curious statement about Hevron, the burial place of the avot (patriarchs) and their wives: Hevron was built seven years before Tzoan in Mitzrayim. The fact that there is a burial ground of profound national (and perhaps even mystical) significance in Hevron automatically necessitates a reference to ancient Egypt, out of the blue, just to remind us how treacherous and problematic it is to combine mysticism, worship, and grave sites.

In the case of Hevron, though, we ultimately are talking about family. The place the Torah draws the line is with teachers.  Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) is buried by Hashem Himself, but the Torah explicitly states that the location of Moshe’s final resting place is not known ad hayom hazeh (until this day). The ad hayom hazeh constitutes another reference to Mitzrayim, for the other appearance of that phrase in the Torah refers to an eternal law established there during Pharaoh’s enslavement of his people.

All of these observations make it particularly sad that one of the largest and most worshipful mass-gatherings of Jews in the Land of Israel today annually takes place at a grave site.  It is obvious that the droves who converge on Meron every year are craving something the mikdash is supposed to provide, yet, when the people let craving alone drive the invention of new rituals of pilgrimage that have no basis in the Torah, the result is perverse.  What the gravitational pull of Meron reveals is that the halakhot (laws) of the mikdash pertaining to death are there to resist the constant pressure that human nature brings to bear: many people long to combine the safety and affirmation of group activities with the feeling that they are seeking relationship to a world of ghosts.  Thousands of years later, we are still struggling to get away from Mitzrayim, and a true mikdash dedicated to life would help us towards that goal.

About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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