A Mystical Understanding into the Destruction of the Temple



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Scheduled for the Ninth of Av,
Messiah's Birth

By Yechezkel Gold

Permanence and the Messiah

We Jews have been struggling to put it all together, individually as well as collectively, since the churban, the destruction of the Temple. Periods of dramatic Jewish blossoming have never lasted. Microcosmically as well as macrocosmically, there seems to be a pattern. We achieve something worthwhile, or at least what we thought would be worthwhile, only to have it either deteriorate or pale. I have seen this happen several times in my own life!

This has been so for our people historically as well. Babylon! the cities of the Rhineland! Provence! Spain! Eastern Europe! The very mention of these stations in our people's trek through the wilderness of golus evokes fond, proud associations in the hearts of all who love Torah study, besides conjuring sad, painful thoughts about persecutions and the tragic endings of these glorious chapters of Jewish history.

Alternation of glad, glorious periods with disappointments seems characteristic of life. As my grandmother, of blessed memory, used to say: "You have to take the good with the bad!" Nevertheless, we Jews strive to achieve permanence. Unlike the nations, whose geographic, national franchise and communal, cultural continuity, past and future, seem pretty assured and seem to have induced a sense of psychological security in their citizens, our physical and spiritual exile keeps reminding Jews of our transience and arouses longing for the permanence of the Messiah, rebuilding the Temple and redemption.

While longing for stability is natural under these circumstances, is it realistic? People simply do have ups and downs in their lives. Decay and death are well nigh inexorable, individually and communally. We Jews have seen many great civilizations come and go, as the visions in the Book of Daniel predicted. What is the meaning of our stubborn insistence on a time of ultimate permanence? Why is faith in the coming of the Messiah and rebuilding the Temple for all eternity one of the thirteen fundamentals of the Jewish faith, to the extent that Maimonides deems someone who does not believe this tenet to be denying the very veracity of Torah?

Addressing this question takes us into the realm of Jewish mysticism. We must explore the significance of the Messiah. He will redeem the Jews and rebuild the Temple. In his time joy and prosperity will reign and suffering will be banished. As many writers have taught us, though, these are not the main features of the Messiah's time. It will be far more. The main significance of the Messiah's time will be revelation of God. The third Temple's permanence will be not only to last forever, but to exist above time, truly revealing the timeless eternity of God.

Permanence, the Tabernacle and the Messiah

Actually, the notion of a permanent dwelling place for the Shechina (Divine Presence) was revolutionary. Though the Mishkan, the Tabernacle built in the desert as the holy sanctuary, was a structure where the Divine was revealed, it was not intended to be really permanent. When the Israelites traveled from one encampment to another, they dismantled the Tabernacle, rebuilding it when they arrived at their destination, the next encampment. Even.in Israel, when the Tabernacle at Shilo which existed over three hundred years was razed by the Philistines, though it was considered a catastrophe, it had far less impact and significance than the destruction of the Temple. Indeed, later it was rebuilt at another location.

True, Halacha (Jewish Law) accounts the building of the Tabernacle as a permanent undertaking, too. The work prohibitions on Sabbath are derived from the types of work performed in building the Tabernacle. For example, if one builds on Sabbath in a permanent manner, or ties a permanent knot, it is a Torah violation of the sanctity of Sabbath. However, if one builds a temporary structure or ties a temporary knot, the transgression is less serious; it is a Rabbinic violation. The question is raised why only permanent building or tying is accounted a Torah transgression when the Tabernacle itself was built with the expectation that it will be dismantled when they travel to the next station. The explanation given is that each encampment of the Tabernacle was considered like a permanent end in itself, not merely a steppingstone to the next station. Therefore the work in building it each time was considered permanent.

Nevertheless, the Temple had a different dimension of permanence than the Tabernacle. Once the Temple was built, the Divine Presence never left the site (even when the Temple was destroyed). It was forbidden ever to build a sanctuary or bring an offering to God elsewhere. Indeed, God said to King David when he proposed to build the Temple (Samuel II, 7): "And these are the words of the Lord to Nathan, saying: Go and say to my servant, David, So says the Lord, will you build a house for my dwelling? For I have not dwelt in a house from the day I raised the Children of Israel from Egypt until today, and I was going in a tent and a Tabernacle." Note the transience implied here regarding the Tabernacle compared to the permanence of the proposed Temple.

Permanence Organic vrs. Inorganic

Let us explore the significance of the Tabernacle's relative transience and the Temple's permanence. The Tabernacle was portable. Its walls were made of upright beams, its ceilings of rugs, products of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, as well as metal and precious stones. Products of the mineral kingdom which figured less prominently in the Tabernacle. The Temple, though, was made of stone. It was pretty much exclusively mineral. We understand that vegetable, and especially animal matter represent a higher, more complex and spiritual level than mineral matter. This is not to say that the raw vegetable or animal material is different from mineral matter, but rather that organizing that material to form a unified, complex organism renders the vegetable and animal levels higher than the simple mineral raw material of which they are comprised. Therefore, it seems surprising that the Temple made of mineral matter was considered the pinnacle and purpose of creation, higher than the Tabernacles of vegetable and animal composition.

Unlike vegetable and animal matter which eventually decay and lose their essential structure, mineral matter is permanent; it does not decay. The mineral level is inert, the lowest of the four levels of matter, because it lacks higher, more dynamic structure. Even its permanence would seem to disqualify it as a fitting dwelling place for the Shechina, then. How can we understand the significance of it being the ultimate material of choice?

To understand the spiritual significance and advantage of inert, mineral matter in the Temple, and why its destruction was a greater calamity than the Tabernacles' destruction, we must explore some of the spiritual roots from which the the Tabernacle, the Temple, and their eventual destruction grew.

Revalation and Blockage

We begin our exploration with the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. The Rabbis taught that God's intense revelation at Mount Sinai made all of the Children of Israel's souls leave their bodies. They swooned, overwhelmed by the absolute reality that nothing really exists besides God, Then, God resurrected them.

Actually, something similar happened in Egypt when the revelation of the Shechina in the tenth plague caused the death of the Egyptian firstborn, but with no resurrection. The resurrection at Mount Sinai was through the dew of Torah, according to Tanya. Somehow, Torah enables the creation to continue existing together with the revelation that really nothing exists except God. This is the notion of "Torah is light" (Proverbs 6, 23). Just as light is nothing in its own right, but merely reveals its source, so Torah presents reality as nothing in its own right, as nothing but revelation of God. This light can coexist with its source, the Divine revelation that nothing really exists besides God.

Indeed, an important role of Torah scholars, called "eyes of the congregation" (Numbers 15), is to see how the Divine is revealed in each situation and call the people's attention to this that they may act accordingly. This assessment is made through bitul, (a soul state of utter selflessness and inner flexibility) which allows the sage to view events entirely accurately. Most people lack this form of bitul. Their main role, rather, is to firmly direct energies toward changing matters, overcoming the difficulties to achieving Torah's goals. But scholars have the additional role to view the light of God through the light of Torah, to see reality as it truly is, nothing but God's revelation.

Light reveals its source by issuing "spontaneously" from its source. "Spontaneously" does not mean that light is not created, as the verse states: "Let there be light." Rather, "spontaneously" means, here, that its source is close to the light so that the light is emitted continuous to the source.

This contrasts with when a blockage interrupts between the source and the light. To overcome this block in emission, a different, higher source is needed, not operating or limited by the parameters of continuity. Even then, because it must skip over the interruption, what is revealed is not visibly continuous with its source.

As an analogy, a ball travelling in one dimension which encounters a block can not proceed. However, an agent operating in a different dimension can circumvent this block, raising the ball over the obstacle and placing it on the other side of the block where it can continue its course. However, there must be a new beginning now, and continuity with the former course is interrupted.

Similarly, in spirituality, a sin is a block. The Divine remains above, unrevealed. Instead of being nothing but the Godly revelation of its source, the creation is rendered secular and unspiritual. Only a point of reality transcendently higher than the spiritual light and the sin can reestablish the creation's connection to what is above. This occurred through the sin of the golden calf after the Torah was given. Torah, spontaneous connection with God, like light revealing its source, was interrupted, represented by Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the seventeenth day of Tamuz. This date was later declared a fast day when besiegers breached the walls of Jerusalem, ultimately leading to the Temple's destruction.

Overcoming Blockage (Teshuva)

The transcendent dimension of spiritual reality which overcame the obstacle of the sin of the golden calf was teshuva and God's forgiveness, reaching a point above normal causality where what is past no longer interferes.

Renewed connection to God through teshuva (the process of returning to God) is different from the former, Torah connection. Torah connection is spontaneous and continuous to its Divine source and can not tolerate blocks, but the teshuva connection which overrides the sin is not spontaneous and contiguous. Unlike Torah which reveals connection to God like light revealing its source so that even the creation is seen to be continuous with God, the teshuva connection is through a separate, hidden dimension. Connection to God is not revealed. Moreover, unlike the Torah connection which is continuous, requiring intactness each step of the way, the teshuva connection is unconditional, skipping and overriding all obstacles and intermediate steps. God forgives Israel despite sin. Teshuva requires effort, and forgiveness derives from a spiritual source higher than continuity with the creation.

Of course, after teshuva Jews returned to living according to Torah which reestablished revelation. However, the new connection had a different character. God's directing the creation with a higher spiritual energy to override the obstacles created by sin has another effect. Although connection between God and the creation is less revealed, it is more intense. The spiritual source is higher and the creation is at a lower level due to sin, less able to accommodate spirituality. This more powerful spiritual energy is expressed by a greater intensity of existence. Thereby, the creation seems more tangible, less inspiring, existing more in its own right instead of revealing that naught exists besides God, the character of the creation before sin. Life requires more effort and is less spontaneously pleasing. The state before the sin of the golden calf was like the Garden of Eden.

Moreover, though the connection through teshuva is unconditional, in fact, precisely because it is unconditional, its intensity renders it all-or-none. It lacks the greater flexibility that spontaneous Torah connection had. It is less able to accommodate a range of different relationships of the creation with God.

Indeed, as Rashi relates, God did not grant full forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf . The verse states (Exodus 32), "And on the day of my reckoning, I will reckon their sin regarding them". Rashi explains that each time God chastises Israel, the sin of the golden calf also contributes to the retribution. Even when Israel is not being punished, the sin interposing between the Divine light and Israel makes necessary a greater, more demanding level of connection to Godliness.

Spontaneous & External Connections

The Talmud (Bava Basra) relates that if the Children of Israel had not sinned, we would have received only the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua. As a result of sin, the reproof of all the prophets as well as the greater specificity and direction of all the Rabbinic literature became necessary. The Rebbe Rashab, Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavatich, explains that our knowledge of Torah would have been spontaneous and intuitive had we not sinned. After rending spontaneous connection with God, we needed external sources of knowledge such as the Rabbinic literature to teach us God's ways.

External sources of knowledge are less flexibile and sensitive than spontaneous, intuitive knowledge. The literature can never cover all possible cases, nor can it perfectly present the subtleties of ideas which become apparent only through internal, spontaneous insight. Moreover, actualizing the expectations of external knowledge demands more effort than spontaneity does. After we sinned, "being a Jew in your heart" became inadequate, and we devote considerable effort to do justice to actualizing the ideals embodied in Torah. Before the sin, though, spiritual actualization was more spontaneous.

The sin of the golden calf concomitantly affected the Jewish spiritual personality. With the split between the sublime, inspiring reality within the soul, and prosaic outer reality as perceived after sin, Divine service became an effort to bridge two incompatible realities. According to Tanya, building the Tabernacle enabled the Children of Israel to express the Divine externally when sin made their personalities no longer able to spontaneously give expression to the Divine. Now, only through the Tabernacle were the Children of Israel a proper dwelling place for the Shechina.

Nevertheless, like our inner lives, the Tabernacle was not a permanent state. Like our thoughts and feelings, it travelled from place to place, each representing a spiritual state, each time gaining a new level of insight, integration, and meaning. Like its building materials, mainly vegetable and animal matter, the Tabernacle represented a state of living growth and change. Always attaining new pinnacles of inspiration through the Divine service, the Israelites justly saw the Tabernacle as the Divine vehicle par excellence for coming close to God.

That is, the Tabernacle meant teshuva and Divine forgiveness which obscured the soul's intimate connection to God as Torah engendered before the golden calf. Nevertheless, the Tabernacle did not eliminate inner experience as a primary mode of contact with God. Inspiration was still extremely important. (Moreover, the poignancy of that contact with the Shechina (God's manifest presence) was even greater than before the sin. God's dwelling with us, even in our impurity bespoke a level of intimacy and endearment that could not be approached before the sin. This is the exalted level attained by those who do teshuva, higher even than perfect tzaddikim, (the perfectly righteous. ) Still, the clarity and degree of contact with the Divine was lessened by sin, as explained above.

As we described above, this living connection with the Divine was symbolized by the vegetable and animal materials which were the primary materials of the Tabernacle. To understand the symbolic meaning of the non-living, mineral materials of the Temple, we must explore the sin of the spies in the desert, which lead not only to forty years' delay in entering the land of Israel, but ultimately, also to the destruction of the Temple. As the sages taught, God declared when the Children of Israel sinned with the spies: "They are mourning for no reason, and I will give them a reason to mourn for generations." The spies sinned on the ninth of Av, when the Temple was ultimately destroyed.

The Golden Calf and the Spies

Let us explore, then, the link between the sin of the spies and the Temple. Apparently, one redeeming consideration in God's forgiving the Children of Israel for the sin of the golden calf was that they were headed toward the land of Israel. There they would keep the commandments dependent on settling the land, among them, building the Temple. We infer this from Rashi's explanation of the punishment for the sin of the spies:

Moses sent spies to explore the land of Israel and report how to conquer it. The spies returned and spoke evil about the land, also reporting that it could not be conquered. As punishment, the Children of Israel were condemned to spend forty years in the desert until that entire generation perished. Only their children would inherit the land. Rashi (Numbers 14) comments that this punishment was also retribution for the sin of the golden calf. God had conceived of this retribution already when they had sinned then, but waited to apply it until their degree of sin overstepped the bounds, i.e. with the sin of the spies.

Thus, although the sin of the golden calf disturbed spontantaneous connection with God, the Children of Israel's ability to express the Divine in the land of Israel and, generally, through performance of God's commandments made forgiveness possible. By refusing to go to the Promised Land too, however, they severed the possibility of a meaningful connection to God even through overt action and thereby were denied forgiveness. Retribution also for the sin of the golden calf became appropriate then.

Conceptually, the spies' sin has to do with the future destruction of the Temple. Going to the land of Israel and actualizing Torah's ideals, the commandments, were quite different experientially from receiving and studying Torah. Torah study, after all, is mainly an internal matter. While the Children of Israel were occuppied with that, parameters of outer reality were suspended. They lived with perpetual miracles, surrounded by clouds of glory, eating manna, the miraculous food from heaven and drinking from Miriam's well (which accompanied them through their wilderness trek).

Performing commandments and going to the land of Israel meant dealing with nature and outer reality. Instead of focus on one's inner state and growth in spiritual perceptiveness and sensitivity as is required in dealing with the subtleties of Torah study, they had to deal with outer reality as it is. Instead of utter conceptual and emotional openness and flexibiliity, they had to be determined and decisive. Indeed, this entailed actually turning away from total openness to experience and the luxury of wondering, orienting instead toward actualizing ideals.

Inward vrs. Outward

Turning away from a primarily inwardly directed orientation to a more decisive, outwardly oriented focus on accomplishment had both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it meant less advancement in Torah. Torah is infinite, and one can never grasp of all it. At some point, God taught us, when one has attained sufficient mastery, one should orient more toward actualizing Torah's ideals. He taught us this by commanding us to leave Mount Sinai and proceed to the land of Israel, saying (Deuteronomy 1): "You have dwelt long enough at this mountain." The expression "enough" is "rav" in Hebrew, meaning "great". That is, though they had not exhausted the infinite depth and breadth of Torah, they had achieved a state of "enough," a state of a certain completion and perfection which will serve as a great, excellent foundation for actualizing God's commandments.

Orienting toward action means making and sticking with decisions. Though questions may remain, there has been sufficient working through to remain committed despite doubts which inevitably arise as the complexities of life raise new issues. Besides, positive involvement in the world is such an important value that to let indecision undermine it because one lacks full clarity, and lapse into relative inactivity, is worse than proceeding. (Of course, this does not mean becoming rigid or mindless. Even when turning away from Mount Sinai, the commandment to study Torah remained. Only that now, it was not to be most people's sole occupation.)

These differences in spiritual orientation between pure Torah study and focus on performing the commandments parallel the differences between the vegetable and animal kingdoms, on the one hand, and the mineral kingdom on the other hand. Torah is called the Torah of Life, and study is a continual growth process. The Tabernacle, built to demonstrate that God forgave the Children of Israel for the sin of the golden calf after they received the Torah, was made of living, growth materials because their sin was in the domain of the Torah of Life.

The Temple's ultimate destruction was rooted in the sin of the spies and refusal to go to the land of Israel where connection to God would be through decisive action. Thus they built the Temple from mineral matter, whose character is fixed and immutable. Unlike the the continual growth type of spirituality associated with the Tabernacle, the Temple represented a spirituality of the absolute. Growth through Torah, like the Tabernacle progressing through the desert toward the land of Israel, asymptotically approaches connection with God, always achieving higher and more complete levels of integration and insight. Growth through actualizing ideals, i.e. performing the commandments, however, connects absolutely with God.

Torah, after all, is a relative dimension. One understands more or less completely and profoundly, according to a human's ability to progressively grasp more and more of God's infinite wisdom and imperatives. The commandments, though, are fixed and immutable. Our understanding of commandments varies with time, culture and ability. Performance of commandments, though, does not vary. The greatest sage helping a poor man rises to the same pinnacle as a simple ignoramus giving the same help. Reflecting God's absoluteness, the commandments are absolute.

Turning away from one's inner world toward actualizing ideals in outer reality, indeed, represents a certain completion and perfection of the process of working out all the internal issues raised by being alive. Deeper understanding is always possible, but unless one also turns outward, ready for the endeavor to actualize ideals, one's inner spirituality is lacking.

Thus, although performing the straightforward directives of the Law is in many respects far simpler than dealing with the depth and complexity of the spiritual issues, direct connection with the absolute comes only through performing these directives. Similarly, though the mineral level is far simpler than the subtleties of vegetable or animal matter, it is immutable. God's absoluteness is reflected, to the extent humans are able to appreciate, in the permanence of the mineral realm. The Temple, of mineral matter, represented a far higher connection to God than the Tabernacle. It connected Israel to the absolute.

Therefore, unlike the Tabernacle which was taken apart and rebuilt, and whose destruction was tragic but relatively was not such a massive catastrophe, (e.g. destruction of the Tabernacle did not entail exile of the Jews) the Temple was an all-or-none phenomenon. When the Children of Israel refused to enter the land of Israel and actualize God's ideals on the ninth day of Av, they rended even the absolute connection with God which teshuva from the sin of the golden calf had forged and revealed. Thereby, they sowed the seeds of the Temple's ultimate destruction on the ninth of Av and our bleak, sorrow-laden exile. Talmud relates that since destruction of the Temple, the Divine Presence dwells in Israel only in the "four cubits" of halacha, not of the depth of Torah study but of God's simple directives.

The Temple, Judah and Benjamin

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most sacred spot on earth, was situated within the territories of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Benjamin represents the treasured ideals, and Judah, commitment to and effective actualization of these ideals. This relation between these two tribes is first revealed in the Book of Genesis, when Joseph, incognito as viceroy of Egypt, demanded that his brothers bring their youngest brother, Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob, their father, refused to part with his youngest son, whom he thought to be the sole remaining progeny of his dear, deceased wife, Rachel. (Jacob did not know that Joseph, Rachel's firstborn son, was still alive.) When famine forced him to reconsider, Jacob still refused to part from Benjamin until Judah absolutely committed himself to bringing him home safely, which he ultimately did. Judah was the most courageous and worldly of the brothers.

This spot, then, representing simple, absolute commitment to the Divine ideals was the place the Divine Presence chose to dwell. Man is only a relative creature, but through firm commitment to higher ideals, man transcends him/herself and unites with the Divine. Later, David from the tribe of Judah built the Temple there. It represents not only completion and perfection of inner spirituality, but also completion and perfection of this world. David's scion, the Messiah, who will (or was) born on the ninth day of Av, will rebuild the Temple there and thereby, absolutely reconnect heaven and earth.


from the August 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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