parasha

Vayikra 5779

 

Can there be a replacement for the Temple? Vayikra

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

This Shabbat, we begin reading from the book of Leviticus, the book that is termed “The Torah of the Priests”. This term explains the essence of this book which deals mainly with laws pertaining to the Temple, the sacrifices, impurity, and purity.


In actuality, most of the book deals with issues that have not been relevant for many years. The Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago. The priesthood is almost insignificant since the Temple’s destruction, and even laws of purity and impurity are partially inapplicable. This book paints a very different picture from the one we are familiar with, a reality in which the nation is united around the Temple and the sacrifices.

One of the greatest of Jewish sages who lived about two thousand years ago, during the days of the destruction, was Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai. He was forced to deal with a new reality of the Temple’s destruction and exile – a reality that begged the question: Could the Jewish nation have a national existence without its spiritual center – the Temple – in Jerusalem? This question was acute during the days when the nation experienced the terrible shock of the destruction, and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai had to respond to it. Today, we look back on history and know how to answer this question: Yes, the Jewish nation survived. It maintained a strong national awareness, and even returned to its land, with G-d’s graces. But two thousand years ago, this was far from obvious.


This is what we are told in the literature of ChaZaL:


Once, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai was leaving Jerusalem and Rabbi Yehoshua was following him and saw the Temple destroyed.
Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe are we for the [Temple’s] destruction, a place where the Jewish nation’s sins are atoned!
Rabban Yochanan answered: My son, do not feel bad, we have one atonement like i, and which is that? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it says ‘For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices’ (Hosea 6, 6).”

(Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4)

Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple in ruins and was convinced that there was no hope for the nation. Until now, the Temple atoned for the sins of the nation. Now the nation will disperse into tribes and various factions and disappear from the world. But Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai looked ahead and knew that there was one thing that could unite the nation and atone for the sins of separatism and sectarianism: Loving-kindness.


Some historians saw this story as evidence of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s alleged opposition to the Temple’s ritual worship. They ignored the story that appears in the same source, Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, adjacent to the previous story:


“…At the same time, Jerusalem was captured, and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai was waiting and anxious. Because Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai heard that Titus had destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the Temple, he tore his clothes, and his students tore their clothing, and they cried, and screamed, and mourned.”
(Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4)

When Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai heard about the destruction of the Temple, he tore his clothes, cried, and screamed. The pain was unbearable. The grief was deep. The crisis was huge. That is why he stands out in Jewish history as one of the nation’s significant leaders, the one who succeeded in teaching the nation how to live without the Temple while preserving Jewish identity and national uniqueness.


There can be no replacement for the Temple. That is why we anticipate its rebuilding, we never give up, and we repeat daily: “Restore the service to the Sanctuary of Your abode”. But for the time being, even if that means thousands of years, we survive and preserve our identity because of mutual responsibility for one another, loving-kindness, a sense of community, and unity.

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