I am in Israel, and recently concluded a tour of the excavated tunnels and bridges of the Old City. Essentially, generation after generation built on top of the generations – and civilizations – that came before, leading to the accumulation of layers that correspond to historical periods. These layers include the stuff of everyday living, though preserved houses like Burnt House are relatively rare.
The things that are not rare are the buildings themselves. From Ancient Israel to Herodean times, the Destruction, subsequent layers from Mamluks or Crusaders, Byzantium and the modern period – it is all there.
And I got to thinking. Sure, most people live their lives and leave little behind. But in Jerusalem, there was an almost-irresistible urge to build. Kings and architects, tyrants and priests all seemed to want to leave their distinctive marks, their own buildings, each intriguing and impressive in their own ways. Stone generally has a pretty impressive quotient of inertia: once built, stone buildings and the blocks used for those buildings tend to stick around.
All of this made me reflect. Because just about every civilization has built buildings – some of them, like the Roman Colosseum or the Athenian Parthenon, are quite impressive or beautiful. Certainly Herod’s Temple was enormous and would be considered grand in any age.
But as much as buildings – especially big stone ones – persist over time, it is not the buildings that ultimately matter, at least not to me. Because Western Civilization (cathedrals notwithstanding) is not founded on big buildings. Our foundation is not built of rock. It is instead founded solely on ideas.
Jews do not build statues of revered sages; instead, we read their words. Better yet, we intellectually engage with what they have to say, wrestling with them to try to better understand them – and G-d.
I personally am a creative fellow. I invent new things. And I certainly am interested in having left the world a better place than I found it (albeit not for a healthy bunch of decades first). But ultimately the value I create in the world is found in the ideas I express and defend, the relationships I have invested in and nurtured, and the new ways in which I have tried to help people to see the world.
I think it is admirable when men seek to create a legacy. But for my money, the legacies of which any of us should be most proud are not the structures we have built, no matter how impressive and long-lasting they might be. Instead, we should continue to invest in holy relationships and ideas: there may be virtually no physicality to any of it, and yet the ideas from the ancient world matter more than every single ancient building put together.