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The Role of the Holy Temple

This week’s parsha, Vayakhel, continues the description of the details in the construction of the Mishkan. This portable structure, also known as “The Tent of Meeting,” was our ancestor’s first sanctuary and the hub of Jewish life. It was used by them not only during their 40 years in the desert but after they entered Israel as well. It continued to serve and function as the center for Judaism not withstanding that over time it was located at various places in Israel. Our first Beit Mikdash, Holy Temple, in Jerusalem, was built by King Solomon about 440 years after the Mishkan’s original construction and initial use.

Today, all that visibly remains of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is the retaining wall from the 2nd Holy Temple. It has remained in place almost 2,000 years since the Roman Empire’s conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era. Despite the false claims made today by many followers of Islam, this wall formerly called the “Wailing Wall,” and “Western Wall,” today simply referred to as “The Kotel,” is irrefutable proof and vestige of a once thriving religious Jewish civilization in Israel. After all, Islam did not emerge on the historic scene until the year 610 of the common era. That is 540 years after the 2nd Temples destruction. Archeologic findings under the Kotel and Temple Mount, as well as those found all around the country of Israel, serve as incontrovertible testimony to the truth of a long-standing Kingdom of Israel in the very land of the present-day country of Israel.

As God’s “place of residence,” so to speak, (not that God can be contained or restricted in any way to any physical location) the Mishkan and Temple had a unique feature. They were endowed with God’s divine presence, “Shekhinah.” This endowment gave these structures a sanctity of a transcendent nature. The 7th Mishnah in chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, lists 10 miracles that happened for our ancestors in the Temple. The Temple also played a key role in determining one legal issue. Its water, combined with the ink dissolved from the name of God, was used to determine the veracity of a claim of adultery brought by a man against his wife. These miracles only occurred there and ceased with the Temple’s destruction. Anyone who came to the Temple could witness these miraculous occurrences, many on a daily basis.

While the Holy Temple does not exist today, its sanctity still exits. This sanctity is permanent and can never disappear. The Rambam writes in “The Laws of the Chosen House,” chapter 6, law 16, “The sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem derive from the Shekhinah and the Shekhinah is never nullified.” Although the physical structure has been destroyed, God’s “Shekhinah,” divine presence, still resides there. Earlier, in chapter 4, law 1, the Rambam states, “the Holy Ark, the staff of Aaron, a jar of manna, and the anointing oil, were hidden in a chamber built deep below the Temple Mount by King Solomon. This event took place many years later at the direction of King Yoshiyahu before the destruction of the first Temple.” Thus, the eternal sanctity of the Temple Mount creates halakhic questions, religious legal issues, for observant Jews wishing today to ascend the Temple Mount.

Notwithstanding this special sanctity of the Temple Mount and its attendant halakhic issues, the “Kotel” has no special or magical power. It is not clear when the practice of placing notes and prayers into the cracks in the Kotel became popular. However, such a practice is antithetical to all halakhic norms of prayer and authentic Jewish thought. We pray to God directly not by placing a note in a wall, even in “The Wall,” no matter how erudite the writing. This performance is tantamount to idol worship. Any notion that one is closer to God standing at the “Kotel” is also erroneous yet prevalently expressed today as well.

However, in recognition of the tremendous national and religious loss of the Holy Temple, its overt demonstration of God’s presence within the Jewish nation, there are legitimate customs by which we remember the Temple. Established by our great sages, they have been woven into other religious ceremonies. Perhaps the most widely known custom takes place at a Jewish wedding. At the height of the couple’s happiness, the marriage ceremony is concluded by reciting, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my arm lose its cunning and my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth…” This recitation is followed by stepping on a glass in remembrance of the Temple’s destruction. Our happiness is incomplete without the Temple’s existence, only we don’t truly recognize the extend of that loss on our lives.

At the conclusion of every prayer we say, “May it be Hashem’s will to rebuild the Temple speedily in our day.” Then, once again, the entire world can see overt manifestations of God’s special relationship with the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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