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Getting Comfortable with the Beit Hamikdash

Friday, 5 August, 2011 - 12:05 pm

Dear Friends,

Several people have expressed to me over the years that they have some discomfort with the role of the Beit Hamikdash in Judaism. Some are bothered by the emphasis on a physical building. Others are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a veneration of the Temple (or even the Kotel today). One person pointed out that he could not relate to the Torah spending so much space on the seemingly mundane details of the Mishkan’s (portable Tabernacle in the desert) construction.

In truth, this question could be expanded to include all Mitzvot. Shouldn’t a religion be more about the mind, the heart, the soul? Why are our actions so important? Does it matter if my Mezuzah is made or parchment or paper? It is just a symbol of G-d’s presence in the home, for which paper is equally effective. Does it matter if the Mikvah water comes from a natural source or the tap? It is just a symbolic ritual purity for which any water should do. Why are the laws of Kosher and Shabbat so obsessed with minute details that seem so irrelevant to achieving the spirit of what those laws are meant to convey? A quick survey of the 613 Mitzvot will reveal that a disproportionate number of Mitzvot focus on the kitchen and the bedroom. Can it be that G-d is so concerned with these lowly areas of life?

To appreciate the answer to this challenge, one must become acquainted with the mystical approach to the purpose of creation and life. The Chassidic masters expound upon an enigmatic Midrash that states, that G-d created the universe for He desired a dwelling place in the lowest world. Simply put, G-d created a realm in which His presence would be concealed, where the inhabitants of this realm would not inherently sense their dependence on the creator. The concealment plan was to the extent that some could even deny His very existence. Why? So that human beings, using the tool that G-d provides – namely the Torah and Mitzvot – would succeed in stripping away the mask thereby exposing the reality of the world’s existence, which is G-dliness. This goal can only be achieved at the lowest levels of existence. This is why Mitzvot must be performed with physical objects. When we use them to serve G-d we elevate them to their true reality, G-dliness. A shofar used for the Mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah is no longer merely a ram’s horn, but a channel for G-dly energy. A Mezuzah is no longer a piece of animal skin, but a channel for G-dly energy. When we do Mitzvot we prove that the concealment within the physicality of the world is only a mirage, that when stripped away is shown to be dominated and overpowered by G-dliness and spirituality.

The ultimate expression of this idea was the Beit Hamikdash. Here we had a building of stone, full of utensils of fashioned of wood and metal, in which humans used animals and plant matter to worship G-d. Seems to be a mundane place, full of mundane activity. Yet, the greatest revelations of G-dliness were experienced in this place, including supernatural events that proved the domination of the G-dly over the physical. For example, the ark was 2.5 cubits wide and it stood in the center of a room that was 20 cubits wide. Yet when one measured from each side of the ark to the nearest wall it would still be 10 cubits instead of 8.75. In other words, it occupied space and did not occupy space at the same time.

On a micro level, each Mitzvah that we do, when we follow the instruction given to us in the Torah, has the same impact. This is why the focus is on action, and the details are important. How does one sustain the inspiration necessary to accomplish this and to live in such a focused manner? The answer can be found in the vision of Ezekiel. He describes G-d’s Throne of Glory. He talks about angels running there and coming back. In Kabbalistic terms Ratzo and Shuv - “running there and coming back” represent two modes. “Running there” is escaping from the corporeal to become absorbed into the spiritual. “Coming back” is realizing that the whole purpose of spiritual ecstasy is to then channel that experience into action as a physical person, thereby transforming the world into a G-dly place. This is a cornerstone of the Chassidic ideal for Jewish life. The purpose of life is action – Shuv. But in order to do so one must also have Ratzo – spiritual immersion. Ratzo is experienced through prayer, meditation, Torah study and the like. Shuv means living out the daily grind as G-d wants us to, all while elevating and transforming everything that we encounter along the way.

As we observe the period of mourning for the Beit Hamikdash these ideas become even more poignant. It is our hope that collectively we plug into the power of Ratzo in order to Shuv and bring the world over the hump of exile to the time of ultimate G-dly revelation, with the coming of Moshiach and the era of universal redemption.

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