Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Personality Development
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated to the full recovery of

asher ishaayahu ben rivka

"Who will ascend the Mountain of God?"

The Sanctuary's status touches upon one of the most delicate subjects in Judaism. God is the antithesis of all material attributes, existing neither in space nor time. How, then, is it possible to conceive of God as confined to a specific place like the Sanctuary?


Rabbi Yaakov Ariel

elul, 5761
1. Introduction
2. King Solomon's Answer
3. "Who will ascend the Mountain of God"
4. Jonah's Prayer
5. The Value of Communal Prayer
6. The Role of the Sanctuary According to the Torah
7. Misconception in the Days of Jeremiah

On Rosh Hashanah, 5761, the "El Aksa War" broke out. This is how the Arabs refer to it - the El Aksa War. This war, stained as it is in blood, continues even today, more than a year later. The Arabs repeatedly emphasize that the war is on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. We, for our part, try to blur this focal point. The Sanctuary, in the eyes of both the religious and the secular, exists more as an abstract vision than an actual geographical location. This way of looking at things results from the painful fact that we are not allowed to go up upon the Temple Mount and fulfill our obligations "in the great and holy house upon which God's name is called." As a result, a mistaken conclusion is reached: that the Sanctuary is more a futuristic vision than an actual physical place. The purpose of what follows is to clarify the real-ideal status of the Sanctuary in Jewish thought.

The Sanctuary's status touches upon one of the most delicate subjects in Judaism. God is the antithesis of all material attributes, existing neither in space nor time. It is both impossible and forbidden to conceive of Him as being restricted to any one particular place. This would be considered "Hagshama," the assignment of corporeality to the Almighty. The universe of space and time is a creation of God, and does not contain Him. How, then, is it possible to conceive of God as confined to a specific place like the Sanctuary? Does not this contradict Judaism's faith in God's uniqueness? This important question is not a new one. It was asked already by the most prominent of our prophets and by the most illustrious of our sages. Still, their responses call for fundamental understanding.

King Solomon's Answer
Already, King Solomon, builder of the First Temple, asked our question at the inauguration of the Sanctuary:
Can God possibly dwell on earth? Behold, the heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built. (First Kings 8:27)

King Solomon's answer, though, is vague. In its place comes a long supplication in which the great King requests that the Sanctuary serve as a place of worship:

Have consideration therefore for the prayer of your servant, and for his supplication... that your eyes may be open towards this house night and day, towards the place of which you have said "My name shall be there," to listen to the prayer which your servant shall make to this place. (Ibid. 28,29)

He designates the Sanctuary as a center of worship for the entire human race:
Also, concerning a stranger, that is not of your people Israel, but comes out of a distant country for your name's sake - for they shall hear of your great name, and of your strong hand, and of your outstretched arm - when he come to pray towards this house, hear him in heaven, your dwelling place; and do according to all that the stranger calls to you for, so that all of the people of earth will know your name, to fear you as do your people Israel, and that they will know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (Ibid. 41-43)

This very same concept is expressed later by the prophet Isaiah succinctly enough: "For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations."
While it is true that the Sanctuary as a house of prayer was hinted at already by Hannah, who would go up to Shilo during the Festival in order to pray at the place of the Sanctuary, King Solomon adds a new dimension. The Sanctuary, with Solomon, becomes a place of worship even for those who are unable to be there physically. Even one who resides in a distant land is able to pray via this place. The Sanctuary's status as a house of prayer, and not only a place for offering up sacrifices, holds eternal and undivided significance. Here, then, we meet for the first time the concept of the Sanctuary as more than an earthly location; the Sanctuary is also a gateway to the heavens.

"And you shall hear in the place of your dwelling in the heavens, and when you hear, forgive" (Ibid. 30). This expression weaves itself continuously through King Solomon's supplication. The physical location of the Sanctuary down here is no more than a center for the gathering together of prayers. Solomon's prayer is apparently intended to answer his great question. Yet, it is difficult to understand what exactly the answer to his question is. To the contrary, the wise king's question appears to have become intensified. King Solomon does not demand personal attendance in the Sanctuary in order to pray there. For the one who lives far off, it is enough that he direct his heart towards the Sanctuary. Yet, for this there is no need for a physical sanctuary at all! Prayer does not require a material channel to aid it in its journey heavenward. What then is the purpose of this earthly sanctuary of ours?

It appears that the Sanctuary as a house of prayer carries with it two connotations:
a) As a place of prayer, the Sanctuary need not be standing erect upon its foundation. Even in a state of destruction, while it is impossible to offer up sacrifices, it is not stripped of its rank as a place of prayer.
b) With the inauguration of the Sanctuary in Jerusalem, the construction of altars anywhere else was forbidden. Sacrifices rise straight up from the sacrificed animal to heaven, from each individual altar. Concerning prayer, though, it is possible to direct ones body and heart toward the place of the Sanctuary and by so doing to concentrate all of the prayers together into one unified collective prayer. Even non-Jews, who are permitted to offer up sacrifices outside of the Sanctuary in Jerusalem, can still direct their prayers to one central location.
Yet the question remains: Why is there a need for one central place through which all prayers are received? "His glory fills the earth," and "He hears the prayer of each mouth." Does not the channeling of all prayers through one location imply limitation? Does it not strip God of His omnipresent status - His presence in all places and at all times?

"Who will ascend the Mountain of God"
It would appear that the key to understanding both the purpose of prayer, and the need for a designated central location, can be found in the verse which appears at the end of King Solomon's long supplication:
That He might incline our hearts to Him to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments, and His statutes, and His judgements, which He commanded our fathers. (Ibid. 58)

In a few words - "That he might incline our hearts to him" - King Solomon manages to sum up the whole idea. The purpose of prayer is not to "bring God down" from his heavenly throne in order to solve our problems for us. To the contrary, prayer is supposed to elevate man towards God. While it is true that in prayers, man makes requests of his Creator - man turns to God in times of trouble and is indeed answered - all the same, while praying, man is expected to feel like a pilgrim en route to the Holy Temple. One must purify his body and his heart. The "pilgrim" is forbidden to rely entirely upon God's assistance; he should not expect God to miraculously deliver him from his present situation, sparing him of the need to exert himself towards elevation. Man's role must be actual-concrete, and not merely verbal-abstract. Therefore, it is necessary that there be an actual physical place towards which one is driven. Even if at present the sojourner is far from his destination, the goal itself - the Sanctuary - calls for spiritual elevation, and one is not permitted to enter it without purification. This place must be holy. From here we receive the concept of the "the small sanctuary" - the synagogue, today's preferred place of prayer. True, God hears our prayers no matter where they are uttered, but the prayers of one who puts aside his mundane affairs and enders a holy place, a place where it is forbidden to act lightheartedly, are not to be compared to those of one who prays in the market place. In this respect, King Solomon apparently bases himself upon the words of his father, King David:

Who shall ascend the mountain of God? Who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands, and a pure heart, who has not taken my name in vain, nor sworn deceitfully. (Psalms 24:3,4)

Even a person who is far from the Sanctuary is not barred from thinking of himself as a pilgrim, who, having made his way up to the Temple, proceeds to actually pray there. Even this individual is in need of mental and physical preparations, similar to those that an actual pilgrim would need to make. Without a real and actual site where approaching God is played out on an actual level, there exists no possibility for one who is distant from the Sanctuary to even imagine himself approaching God. Only a vibrant and dynamic physical location, completely dedicated to God's service, can serve as a central way station for the prayers of all those who are far off.

Jonah's Prayer
Jonah, while in the belly of the great fish, in the middle of the sea, on his way to Tarshish gives forceful expression to this feeling:

The waters encompassed me all around to the point of death. The depth closed me around; the weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains. The earth with her bars closed on me forever. Yet you have brought up my life from the hole, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered God, and my prayer came in to you, into your holy temple. (Jonah 2:6)

Jonah himself has sunken to the greatest of depths, yet he recalls the experience of going up to the Sanctuary for the Festival. Thus, his prayer too is able to ascend, as if in his place, for the Festival in Jerusalem. Jonah, who wanted nothing more than to flee from God, here returns to God in complete repentance. Certainly Jonah realized that it is impossible to hide from God, as it is written in the book of Psalms:

Where shall I go from your spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, you are there: If I make my bed in She'ol, behold, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and reside in the furthest parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (139: 7-10)

Jonah is aware that his fleeing from before God is in truth a fleeing from the House of God, from the geographical location in which God's divine presence dwells. The presence of a real physical abode on earth, with its house of worship, demands a different sort of behavior; at the same time, such a house allows for a different sort of inspiration. Such a place permits man to draw near to God. Jonah fled from this obligating bond. His taking to sea and being swallowed by the great fish cause him to repent. And he returns to God's temple - if not physically, at least in spirit. At the same time, he longs to return to Israel in body as well. His return, then, is actually twofold in nature: He returns to God in repentance; he also returns home, to a tangible house on earth, to a real place in which fills him with prophetic inspiration.

The Value of Communal Prayer
The presence of one central place of worship for the both Jews and the rest of humanity carries with it an additional advantage. Sincere prayer demands that an individual discard his personal egocentricity and consider the needs of the community as a whole. It is quite possible that one's own interests are at odds with those of his fellows. To which of them will God attend? A central place of worship, through which all prayers ascend together to heaven, obligates an individual to take into consideration the plight of his fellow. Only the sort of place in which a person feels a clear sense of communal partnership in God's service can strip him of his egocentricity.
The prayer of Hannah at the Sanctuary is a good example of a prayer in which the personal aspect goes almost unmentioned. She prays for the sake of the entire human race: God kills and provides life. He brings down to the grave, and brings up. God makes poor and makes rich. He brings low and raises up. He raises up the destitute out of the dust, and lifts up the beggar from the dung heap. (First Samuel 2:6-8)

She even prophesies concerning the appointment of a king of Israel, a position that her son did not strive to fill. He, in fact, believed that the time for a king in Israel had not yet come: Let him give strength to his king, and exalt the ray of his anointed. (Ibid. 2:10)

The Role of the Sanctuary According to the Torah
Already with the first commandment concerning the construction of the Sanctuary, the Torah defines this unique structure's role: They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. (Exodus 25)

The Rabbis long ago pointed to the fact that instead of saying, "I will dwell in it," the Scriptures state "I will dwell among them." God Himself has no need for a house. We, as humans, are in need of a link with God. God, for His part, desires to have His presence dwell among us. There exists here reciprocity. An intimate spark, as between lovers. Still, the need for such a link belongs entirely to man. It therefore necessitates consideration of man's weaknesses. Were it not for man there would be absolutely no need for a sanctuary. The purpose of the Sanctuary is to serve as a link between heaven and earth. You might see this as the essence of Jewish faith. Judaism is not some abstract faith cut off from world of reality. Rather, the Faith of Israel constitutes a vibrant and tangible bond with the Creator. God, in turn, does not fear the possibility of mistaken impressions that are liable to arise from His seeming "limitation":
...I will even descend and constrict My divine presence into the area of a square cubit. (Shemot Rabba, 24)

God is more concerned that man's desire to glorify and exalt Him will lead to His becoming cut off from real life, than He is that an overly intimate link with Him might cause misconceptions. "God's ways are just; the upright will follow them, the wicked will stumble upon them" (Hosea 14:10).
The direct personal supplication of each separate individual from anywhere on earth serves to emphasize human individualism. The Torah, though, sees value in community - both national and universal. The Book of Books was not given to individuals but to an entire community, standing together in one place. The day of the giving of the Torah itself is referred to as the "day of assembly" ("Hakhel"). Therefore, the main role of the Sanctuary is the thrice-yearly national pilgrimages and the communal service of God that is carried out there. The Sanctuary, then, must exist as a clearly defined location where the community actually gathers on special occasions.

Misconception in the Days of Jeremiah
In the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, on the eve of the destruction of the Temple, the character of the Sanctuary was distorted by the masses. The masses mistakenly held that, since it was the house of God, the Sanctuary was immune to destruction. It was therefore possible, the people reasoned, to continue to pursue evil without fear of repercussions. In such a degraded atmosphere, it was necessary to lessen the importance of the Sanctuary in order that it not become an obstacle:

Do not place trust in lying words, saying, the Temple of God, the Temple of God, the Temple of God, are these... Look, you trust in lying words that cannot benefit. Will you steal, murder and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to the Ba'al, and go after other gods who you do not know, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are delivered" in order that you may carry out all these abominations? Has this house, which is called upon my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Look, I myself have seen it, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:4-11)

Jeremiah emphasizes the prohibitions engraved upon the Tablets of the Covenant, those located in the Holy of Holies. The main purpose of the Sanctuary is to sanctify man, to purify and elevate him. The commandments carved out on the stone tablets need to be engraved upon hearts of those who come into the Sanctuary. Yet, when the means are transformed into an end in their own right - when the Sanctuary, instead of elevating the nation causes the nation to fall - there is no longer any justification for its existence. When this is the situation, it becomes necessary to emphasize infinite nature of God, and His absolute non-corporeality:

"Can anybody hide himself in secret places such that I not see him?" says God. "Do I not fill the heaven and the earth?" says God. (Ibid. 23:24) Jeremiah, though, also prophesizes concerning the return of the Divine Presence to Zion, and the city's future transformation into a spiritual center for all of humanity: At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of God, and all of the nations will gather to her, to the name of God, to Jerusalem. And they will no longer stray after the stubbornness of their evil heart. (Ibid. 3:17) Jerusalem will become a throne for the Kingdom of God, an honorable place which all of the nations will esteem and visit in order to receive the yoke of the Kingdom of God. The essence of this yoke is the purification of one's thoughts and deeds.

Isaiah the Prophet witnesses Jerusalem in her wantonness. In his day, the city is still standing on her foundation. Isaiah views the Sanctuary as a center of inspiration for the entire world. Rather than emphasize the place, the prophet emphasizes God as the source of - or, as our sages say, the "place" of - the entire universe: Holy, holy, holy, is God of Hosts; the whole world is filled with His Glory. (Isaiah 6:3)

Ezekiel the Prophet, already sitting in exile, takes us back to the Sanctuary's physical location in the hills of Zion. Even in a state of destruction the site remains holy and is destined to be rebuilt. It is time to emphasize the earthly site so that it not be forgotten in the Exile and become transformed into nothing more than an empty vision, Heaven forbid: Blessed is God's Glory from His place. (Ezekiel 3:12)

Summary: Valley of Vision
If we were to attempt to summarize our study and to answer the question that we asked when we set out - What is the Sanctuary: a vision, or an actual place? - it would appear that there is no better expression than that which the prophet Isaiah uses: "Valley of vision" - both a place and a vision.

The year 5761 will be remembered as the year of the struggle for Jerusalem. The source of the struggle, though, rests in the inner clarification among the Jewish people and in the hearts of each and every Jew, a clarification of one of the foundations of the Jewish faith.

The Sanctuary is not merely an abstract vision. It is also a real and tangible place existing on an actual level, here in our midst. We must not separate the two. One who separates these two aspects turns the vision aspect into an empty metaphor, and empties the real-place aspect of all meaning.

The "heavenly Jerusalem" is aligned with the "earthly Jerusalem" and the link between them - a link that makes them "like one great city" - distinguishes Judaism from all other religions. Christianity transformed Jerusalem into a purely spiritual entity. This fact did not stop the Christians from trying to make claims of ownership. It did not prevent them from trying to rule over the earthly Jerusalem. Islam, on the other hand, sees Jerusalem primarily as a focus for political power. All the same, this does not stop them - via later interpretation - to attribute religious significance to the site of the Temple: It is viewed as a site of flight to heaven. For them, it exists as a place of separation from earth. Our Jerusalem, though, is the point of connection between heaven and earth, which embraces both lofty ideals and earthly realism, great aspirations and detailed activities. She is not merely an abstract vision or a place devoid of essential significance. She is, rather, an earthly abode, a valley of vision, imbued with the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, both a heavenly Jerusalem and an earthly Jerusalem bound together like one great city.

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