LTTN med xp logoFocus on the Holy Temple
The Meaning of Jerusalem

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1996 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, September, 1996 (Tishrei, 5756)

Recently, the city of Jerusalem held gala celebrations marking 3,000 years since King David began his reign, effectively establishing the city’s Jewish roots. Though it is nearly 2,000 years since the Second Temple was destroyed by Roman legionnaires, Jerusalem has remained the focal point of the Jewish people and the object of their yearning throughout all the long years of their exile. The Jews have never had another capital; the unique status the city holds in their minds and hearts is unparalleled.

A Global Spiritual Capital

From time immemorial, this city has been a spiritual capital for much of the world. The very word “Jerusalem” is a veritable symphony to our ears, evoking a wellspring of emotions. Even though the enigma that lies at its heart—the Holy Temple—has been missing for so many years, Jerusalem has still remained a source of inspiration and the object of a spiritual odyssey that has succeeded in binding the Jewish people together throughout all the ages. Indeed, the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 122:3) “O Jerusalem, built like a city that is compact together” and the sages comment “What is meant by ‘a city that is compact together?’ A city that binds all Israel together in friendship” (Midrash Tehillim).

The Fulfillment of Timeless Prophecies

What is the source of this longing, this great yearning for Jerusalem? It can clearly be found in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“And it shall come to pass, in the last days, that the mountain of the L-rd’s house shall be established at the top of the all the mountains, and shall be exalted above all the hills; and all of the nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the L-rd, and to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and he will teach us of his ways, and we shall walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2–3).

It was this prophecy which was transformed into the banner and herald for the war-weary, spiritually-hungry denizens of the world. This belief—that the day would come when the entire world would reach its climactic rectification of harmony, unity and fulfillment—sees Jerusalem as the spiritual center and source of light and inspiration for all of humanity.

This belief has inspired countless generations. The prophecies recorded in the books of the prophets of Israel all originated in Jerusalem, and were later translated into the languages of the earth, providing access to all. Thus, from the cradle of humanity, the word of G-d emanated to all corners of the globe, and in this manner Jerusalem’s status was established as the universal spiritual center.

Indeed, though the prophecy mentioned above was said with regard to the end of days, when it will be fulfilled in its entirety, it was already partially fulfilled in those ancient days. The First Temple, built by the wise King Solomon, was widely acclaimed as one of the great wonders of the world, and throngs of humanity from all over the world flocked to see it and to seek Solomon’s great wisdom and understanding. Jerusalem thus became known as a spiritual center and a city of G-d. And during the era of the Second Temple, even though the Divine Presence did not rest upon Israel, the nation nonetheless experienced a special spiritual relationship with G-d, which manifested itself through the teachings of great sages and leaders who forged a golden age of wisdom, scholarship and spiritual development. It was also in this era that the physical aspect of the Temple reached its crescendo of beauty and splendor, during the reign of King Herod. The appearance of the Temple was so singular that the sages of Israel were moved to record: “Whoever has not seen the Holy Temple built by King Herod, has never in his entire life seen a beautiful building” (BT Sukkah 51:B).

The Concept of Jerusalem: Man’s Relationship with G-d

But the Jerusalem that houses the Holy Temple is a spiritual place, fired by spiritual energies. As such it transcends its physical boundaries. In the context of these hopes, aspirations, and dimensions of true religious experience and fulfillment, “Jerusalem” is not just a city, of houses and courtyards, like any other city—Jerusalem is a concept.

The Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem is what gave the city its eternal meaning; the same continues to nurture its future hope. The Temple was not only the soul of the city, but the soul and conscience of the entire earth; the wonder of the world and focal point for the prayers of mankind.

The key to understanding the Holy Temple’s functioning in all its detail is a concept which takes in an entire world-view. For the service in the Holy Temple is meant to be nothing less than an act of rectification for all humanity. Through the sacred service of the priests and Levites, the participation of the Israelites, the pilgrimage of foreign nations; the sacrificial service, the incense offering, the showbread, the menorah kindling and the Levite’s song…each and every aspect is another note in a harmony of Divine orchestration.

The Temple is a microcosm; a cosmic blueprint. Its service is a plan whereby every strata of creation is uplifted, and the entire span of creation is brought to a state of pristine harmony…for each aspect of creation finds its place in the service of the Creator. Within the Holy Temple, all forces unite to acknowledge Him who brought them all into being as the only reality, the Supreme Force which drives the universe.

The Holy Temple was not just some magnificent building or synagogue rooted in Jerusalem’s ancient Biblical past; it was an arena of cosmic themes; a place where man could meet with his Creator. This represents one of the most important concepts of Jewish belief: that man has the capacity to engage in a direct, constant, and fulfilling relationship with his Creator. It was the world’s true spiritual center, and the medium for that unfolding relationship.

It is the reality of the living memory of that relationship as it once was, and the dream of its renewal—as promised by G-d Himself—that keeps the fires of the Temple altar burning within the collective heart of the nation of Israel, and the hearts of all those who cherish Israel’s G-d and His message for humanity.

The Holy Temple is the Secret of the Jewish People’s Survival

A story relates that Napoleon Bonaparte once entered a synagogue on Tisha B’Av, the solemn fast day observed each year that marks the anniversary of the Holy Temple’s destruction. Seeing the Jewish worshippers seated on the floor and crying, he asked what terrible disaster had befallen them. He was told: “The Jews are in mourning for their Temple, Your Excellency.”

He asked “What Temple? When did this event occur?”

Upon learning that the Jews were grieving over the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem more than 1700 years earlier, the emperor remarked: “Such a people as this will never be destroyed! If they still remember to mourn for their Temple of so long ago, they will surely see it rebuilt.”

Psalm 30: “A Song for the Dedication of the House”

Psalm 30, which begins with the words “A song for the dedication of the house,” was written by King David with Divine inspiration. He ordered it should be sung by the Levites during the dedication ceremonies of Solomon’s Temple; some say that it was sung at the same event during the Second Temple, and that it will be sung at the dedication of the Third Temple as well.

The psalm in its entirety reads:

A psalm, a song for the dedication of the house, by David:
I will extol You, O L-rd; for You have drawn me up,
and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.
L-rd my G-d! I cried to You, and You healed me!
O L-rd! You brought up my soul from the grave!
You have kept me alive, preventing me from descending to the pit.
Sing praise to the L-rd, you, His loving ones! And give thanks to His holy name.
His anger only lasts for a moment, but His favor is for a lifetime;
The night may bed down in weeping,
but joy comes in the morning.
As for me—in my prosperity I said “I shall never be moved.”
But You L-rd, in Your favor You made my mountain steadfast;
When You hid Your face I was confounded.
I cried to You, O L-rd; and to the L-rd I made supplication:
What profit would there be in my blood, if I go down to the pit?
Can the dust give thanks to You? Can it declare Your truth?
Hear, O L-rd, and be gracious to me; L-rd, be my helper.
You! You have turned my mourning into a dance!
You have loosened my sackcloth,
and girded me with gladness!
So that my glory will sing praise to You,
and not be silent.
L-rd my G-d!
I will give thanks to you for ever and ever.

This chapter is exceptionally beautiful, and like many aspects of the Bible it can be interpreted on a variety of levels. But some commentators have expressed wonderment over one thing: What does it have to with the Holy Temple? This chapter was singled out to be read at the Temple’s dedication, a long-awaited event that was to begin a period that would effect a permanent change in the world. But with the sole exception of the title, nowhere in these lines is there the slightest mention of the Temple, nor even an allusion!

In reality this psalm is a song of life which exemplifies the whole concept of the Holy Temple; it reflects its true purpose and nature, and contains within it the powerful secret of the Temple’s role and function in the life of man:

The deliberate recruitment and connection of all our energies and powers to a sense of Divine purpose. This is the role of the Holy Temple in the life of man: to enable one to realign himself, to dedicate the whole self to G-d, to elevate every aspect of the human experience to holiness and return the energy which He gives us to His service.

Thus every person is a portion of the house, a “brick” as it were; this is the song of dedication for man himself, whose body is home to a G-dly soul. Only when every aspect of our endeavors are dedicated to the L-rd, and we realize that everything comes from Him—only when each individual house is “dedicated” in true recognition, can the entire House be functioning. Only when we realize that He is the center, the secret, and the cause of all our varied experiences. And that He sends us these experiences so that we can seek Him out. And it is only through that House that this recognition can truly come about, in every sense.

This is the song that encompasses all the experiences of each man, the entire gauntlet of human emotion; the stuff of life. Its sense of fulfillment is brought about through the relationship and the insights that are rectified in this place —

I will extol You, O L-rd; for You have drawn me up,
and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.

You have not allowed my own greatest enemy—my own evil inclination, to rejoice over me; you have drawn me up from the crippling despair of my own feelings of helplessness and inadequacy…

L-rd my G-d! I cried to You, and You healed me!
O L-rd! You brought up my soul from the grave!

Sing praise to the L-rd, you, His loving ones! And give thanks to His holy name.

I recognize that it is You who have given me the gift of life;
it is You who hear my prayers, and answer;
it is You who have rescued you me from wallowing in that pit of desperation—
and I know that you have brought me up solely that I may recognize and know You.

Since the very earliest days, when the Jewish people left Egypt by the hand of G-d and built the desert Tabernacle, the Temple has been the soul of the spiritual and national existence of the Jewish People. It was the center of prophetic revelation; the royal authority of the Davidic and Hasmonean dynasties. It was the high point of all religious ceremony and the seat of the High Priest. Its Chamber of Hewn Stone was the convening place of the Sanhedrin, the legislative and judicial authority of the nation. From there, the knowledge of G-d spread out to the entire world.

Twice the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish People dispersed, yet the spirit of the Temple sustained them through bitter exile.

It was none other than Abraham, father of the nation of Israel, who declared that the Temple of G-d would be established on Mount Moriah. King David laid the foundations and groundwork for building the Temple, and his son King Solomon erected it. And when the First Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled to foreign shores, they sang a mournful dirge for it by the rivers of Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah, accompanied by 42,360 Jews, ascended to Israel from Babylon and immediately began to rebuild the Holy Temple. During the reign of King Herod, the Temple reached its height of splendor and magnificence.

Thus, over a period spanning nearly 1,000 years, the Holy Temple functioned as the heart of the Jewish people. It was the center of life for all that was considered of value in Israel: the kingdom, the spirit of prophecy, the Sanhedrin, and most importantly…the Divine service. Here, in this house of prayer for both Israel and the nations, the priests and Levites attended to their sacred duties. From every corner of the ancient world, people streamed to the Holy Temple to absorb something of the holiness and the spirit of purity which resided in this place.

In our own days, the prophecy of redemption is being fulfilled before our eyes, stage by stage… with the ingathering of the exiles and the liberation of the Land.

In the essays we present here, we have tried to describe something of the world of the Holy Temple, with an emphasis on its centrality in everyday life. It would be a difficult task indeed to attempt to do justice to the vast amount of rich description and information preserved by the Sages of Israel in the Oral Tradition, within the confines of a publication of this modest size and scope. Yet we have endeavored to cull from those descriptive and colorful sources, as wide a range of details of Temple life as possible. It is our hope and prayer that this may bring the reader to a greater appreciation of the Temple’s historical significance, as well as its importance both for the Jewish people and the entire world.

May we merit to witness the realization of Hagai’s prophecy, “For thus says the L-rd of Hosts: Yet again, in just a little while, I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, and the finest of all the nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, says the L-rd of Hosts…The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, says the L-rd of Hosts: and in this place I will give peace, says the L-rd of Hosts.”