According to the Jewish Calendar, we are now in the period known as the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple (The first and the 2nd) This period will end on the evening of the 21st July, with the beginning of the fast to mourn the destruction of the Temple. In respect of this day of mourning, I present a newsletter which I wrote a few years ago, offering my interpretation of the significance of the Temple for the world and for Judaism. Originally published: Jerusalem Friday, January 21, 2011
Dear Friends, Shalom,
Sometime or other everyone finds himself in a fix. It might be only a puncture that makes us late for an important appointment or it may be something much worse like having our home washed away in a flood, as has happened recently in Australia and Brazil.
If we are going to cope and find a solution to our problem or, failing that, resign ourselves to accepting that the catastrophe was inevitable and suffer it calmly to make the best of a bad situation we need to develop an attitude that will calm our nerves and ease our tension.
This attitude develops with age and experience but it's discovery is usually the result of a deliberate, life long search. Some people have succeeded in discovering such an effective attitude that they are able to accept even a catastrophe like a flood with equanimity.
Seeing that catastrophes have been with us since creation it seems reasonable that man has been searching for an attitude to help him since then.
The search lead to the idea that there must be a place where catastrophes never happen, utopia. The description of this place can be found in the literature of practically every religion.
The Jews described it as "The Garden of Eden" in the Bible. In other words, this idea explained why catastrophes occurred, namely, everywhere outside the Garden of Eden catastrophes can occur but not inside.
The idea concerning man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden was used to explain why man is now living in a world of catastrophe, outside the Garden of Eden, instead of inside, where there are no catastrophes.
Then came the idea that angels prevented man's return to the garden. I could never understand the origin of the idea of angels, after all no living person to the best of my knowledge has ever seen an angel. The only creature that comes close to that is a bird.
Then, while standing with some tourists by the magnificent entrance of the Church of the annunciation, in Nazareth, decorated with carvings of angels, in memory of the angel Gabriel, who announced the coming birth of Jesus to Mary, one of the tourists, who happened to be a pilot for Delta Air, explained that the idea of wings was to represent immortal creatures because unlike mortals they're not connected to the earth.
This now explained why man couldn't return to the Garden, namely because he is now mortal and inside the Garden only immortal creatures exist, hence the angels at the entrance.
The two concepts, sin and mortality were perfect for explaining man's predicament of no return.
This idea was revolutionary because for the first time it associated catastrophe with a place and not with a mood of this or that god or even the mood of God Almighty, the only God.
There is a place where there was sin and death, where catastrophe could occur at any time and where man lived and there is a place where there is no sin and immortality where man was forbidden to enter.
Jews understood that sinlessness and immortality were unattainable on an individual basis. No matter what he did there was no returning to the Garden of Eden for the individual.
This of course lead to the idea of the creation of one place which would symbolize the place of no catastrophe in the midst of that part of the world where catastrophe is inevitable.
This place was the temple in Jerusalem. Naturally just as there was only one Garden of Eden so there could be only one temple. This idea was fundamental to Judaism and differed greatly from the pagan idea of building many temples in many places. In fact the Bible doesn't even specify a particular place as long as there is only one.
Naturally David chose the place to be in Jerusalem for political reasons to unite the Jewish Nation, which basically was his construction.
Naturally the temple and everything associated with it, the design, the utensils, the priesthood and the ceremonies, symbolized the Garden of Eden.
The distance one was from the temple in Jerusalem symbolized the distance from the Garden of Eden. The nearer one approached the temple the nearer one came to symbolic sinlessness and immortality.
Immortality was the most important aspect of the Garden of Eden to symbolize. This was done by placing the Ark of the Covenant at the centre of the temple with two angels on top of it keeping guard, like the two angels that guarded the gates of the Garden of Eden against entry by any mortal.
The priests were symbols of sinless man before he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. Being the symbol of sinless man only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the precinct of the Ark of the Covenant, the place where symbolic sinlessness and immortality resided.
Holiness became clearly defined as the condition to be fulfilled by the high priest for entering the Holy of Holies and the common people for entering the temple in general.
For example any association with death made the high priest unholy and therefore unable to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, the only day when he was permitted, actually compelled to enter to pray for the well-being of the Nation of Israel.
With this knowledge, now one can understand that the legend of the high priest dying while in the holy of holies, is impossible because there can't be death in that place of immortality.
From this one can also understand why, generally speaking, a dead body is unclean in Judaism and one who had touched a dead body or anything associated with death, such as blood or feces is forbidden from entering the temple.
In fact as long as the temple stood in Jerusalem it was necessary for a Jew to keep himself holy even if he lived far from the temple.
Because the holiness that resided in the temple was like a star whose rays shone throughout the world and benefited all people who were holy as the sun's rays benefit all the world.
All the actions of a Jew are related to making himself holy, because without being so he was forbidden to go up to the temple. In fact uncleanliness symbolically precluded him from symbolically basking in the symbolic atmosphere of holiness that emanated from the temple.
This emanation of holiness was symbolized by the 7 branched candelabra that burnt by day and night in the temple.
The number 7 is used because it symbolizes eternity, which was in the Garden of Eden; 7 is the basic number which expresses the eternity of creation by its weekly repetition, in a never ending cycle for 52 weeks equaling the cycle of the earth around the sun.
Judaism emphasizes the Sabbath because its weekly repetition is proof of God's covenant with the Jewish People that they and the world will continue to exist for ever.
All the laws which Jews have to obey have the function of keeping them holy. This way they can symbolically experience the same holiness that Adam and Eve felt in the Garden of Eden before they sinned.
Observance of laws is not to prevent catastrophe. Nothing can prevent that because we live in a world of catastrophe but being symbolically holy we can be happy despite the constant catastrophes that befall us because we have a taste of holiness and immortality.
Perhaps there's even a chance that the whole world will become symbolically holy and then there will be a return to the real Garden of Eden and human beings will once again be sinless and immortal.
There isn't a Garden of Eden for individuals only one for the whole universe. It's either everyone or no one.
Wishing you a great no news day
Ref: Prof Rachel Elior – Temple and Chariot, Priests and Angels, sanctuaries in ancient Jewish Mysticism (Hebrew) published by Magnes press. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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