Why wasn’t the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, twice destroyed by our enemies, rebuilt in the last 2,000 years? We have had all those years to pray, to yearn. And yet we are somehow no closer to the rebuilding of the Temple than we were after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus.
The question is especially pertinent when we accept that, for the first time during this period, the Jewish people are now in control of the land on which the Temple, the “Home of the Tabernacle,” stood. And so I used to think as many others do: that we simply lack the courage to do what needs to be done. If this is so, we could say that our medieval, ghetto mindset has not been updated by the existence of the State of Israel. I think this is part of the answer. But it is not a complete explanation.
Until we understand why the Temple was destroyed in the first place, there is no reason why G-d should give us another chance. After all, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Rita Mae Brown). We had the first two temples. And we lost them both, which means that thinking that if we restore what we had in the past we would get a better result would be, in a word: insanity.
If we were “doing” the temple wrong the first two times, then perhaps we are not supposed to build the third Temple until after we understand why G-d commanded the tabernacle to be built in the first place!
The serious gap in our understanding rests with a major purpose of the Temple: to offer sacrifices. Yet, the prophets and psalms have no shortage of exhortations about G-d NOT wanting the sacrifices that He told us to bring! Here is but a short sample:
For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of G-d more than sacrifices. (Hosea 6:6)
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats? (Psalms 50:13)
Yet the Torah commands us to bring sacrifices! What were the prophets and the psalms trying to tell us? Why did they seem to contradict G-d’s expectations for sacrifices? Does G-d want sacrifices, or not?
I think the prophets were making a more subtle, but profound argument: G-d wants us to understand that the commandments are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And what is that end? God wants us to behave and live in a holy manner: Mercy. Love. Justice. Growth, both personal and societal.
So, too, the Temple, the house of the Tabernacle where we bring our sacrifices, is also a means to an end. Each of the parts of the tabernacle is rich with symbolism and meaning, capable of guiding us through the ages – but only if we appreciate the importance of seeking understanding, as opposed to merely ticking the boxes.
The problem is that throughout history, the Jewish people have forgotten G-d’s expectations and slipped back into mindset of Cain (G-d as a powerful entity requiring a payoff), Korach (G-d as pagan deity who is ultimately uninterested in the affairs of men as long as He gets His own offerings), and countless Jews who see G-d as nature and nature as G-d. For all these deities, man merely has to go through the motions, and the god is assuaged. None of these gods requires the worshipper to seek personal spiritual growth, to find ways to love the widow, the orphan and the stranger – let alone one’s own neighbor.
But the G-d of the Torah stands qualitatively apart from all pagan (and for that matter Greco-Roman, Norse and other) deities. G-d is not nature or one of its forces. Nor does He want us to serve because we acknowledge His power: He wants us instead to acknowledge and emulate his mercy and justice.
Hashem also wants and craves a relationship with us, one in which we seek to understand and perceive His thoughts. He commands us to bring sacrifices not because He is hungry, but because sacrifices, given properly, can help us grow and move on in our personal development and deepen our connection to and our relationship with Him.
When we instead practice what I term “Rain Dance Judaism”, we are reverting to a kind of “fill in the blanks” service to G-d that is much more pagan than Jewish. Instead of understanding why we have commandments, we think all we really need to do is follow the commandments, with slavish attention to detail. If we do things just right, then the Celestial Slot Machine will come up bells, and we’ll be rewarded with a cascade of quarters. This is precisely the same trap into which the Judaism of the Temple periods fell into!
Instead of understanding why we brought sacrifices, people assumed that as long as they followed the letter of the law, G-d would be happy. Instead of understanding why the Mishkan was commanded, we instead assumed that we didn’t need to know the reasons; we were only to show our devotion by doing precisely as we were told. And instead of understanding and internalizing the lessons contained within sacrifices, we mailed it in: give G-d lunch, and He’ll bless us – or at least leave us alone! We have forgotten that all of these actions, these commandments were intended to bring us closer to G-d and to emulate Him in our actions, words and deeds.
Until we come to understand what the commandments are for, we will not have the opportunity to practice them fully, to use them as a way to learn and understand G-d. As we read on the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23,24)
And it is in these things, lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness, that we have been given the Torah and all its commandments. The challenge for us is to try to understand how and why the commandments in the Torah, including all of those of the tabernacle, lead us to making ourselves and our societies more loving, just and righteous. As we do that, we grow in our understanding and knowledge of G-d Himself.
When we meet that mental challenge, then we will no longer be doing the same thing over and over again, and we will be able to reasonably expect a different result. At that time, we will be ready for the Third Temple.