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Today is the 17th Day of Tamuz
Why do we bother fasting?

Today commemorates the 1,940th anniversary of the last korban, animal offering, in the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim, and the last time that a Jew sacrificed according to the halacha. Following the building of Solomon's Temple some thousand years earlier, all private sacrifices were outlawed. Without a Temple, all Israelite sacrifice ceased.

This was not the first time that private offerings were banned in favour of a centrally located public altar. For forty years in the desert, and during the 369 years that the Tabernacle rested within stone walls at Shiloh, personal altars were also not allowed. Outside these two periods of time, private offering was permitted. With the final completion of the Temple by King Solomon, private sacrifices were again forbidden, this time forever.

From the bible it appears that sacrifice commenced from a spontaneous inner desire by early man to commune with his Maker. Communication with the divine was manifested in sacrifice, both animal and plant based. Prayer was unknown to the early generations.

How does animal sacrifice work? There are two principal formats.

A person who is happy with his lot, with his successes, takes something of importance, of value to him, and "presents" it to God. Remember we are talking about farmers, people who live on and from the land. Nothing is more valuable to a farmer than a prize bull. Man's ability to share his possessions with his Maker demonstrates his belief in a higher, unseen being, in a creator, in a force greater than he, the force behind nature, the real driver of the universe. As our successful person is in good spirits over his lot, his mood is infectious. He wants everyone to know how good God has been to him. He invites relatives, neighbours and friends to join him in his celebration. Part of the prize animal is burnt on the altar, a gift to God, another part is consumed by the revellers along with other food and drink provided by the host.

A sinner seeks atonement for his transgressions also by sacrificing a possession of value. The transgressor places his hands on the animal's head, pushing down with all his might. He confesses his sins, transferring as it were his self into the animal, leaving him a forgiven, new, reborn person. This sin offering must be totally consumed by the flames of the altar, symbolising the obliteration both of his sin against his God and of the "old" person, the sinner. The similarity of human and animal biology drives home a realisation that he, who has transgressed the law of the Lord, is the one that should be burning on the altar. Only through the mercy of his God, is he now given another chance to live -- his possessions, his animal have taken his place.

For four thousand years since creation, commencing with the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, the above scenario was universal. Jews and pagans practised a variation of the two themes, sin-offering and thanksgiving. Extreme cases involved human offering, such as child sacrifice to Molech, where burning humans was deemed to be the path to appeasing an angry god. And there were many other corruptions including the addition of promiscuity and other depravities to the basic themes.

The Torah insists that all sacrificial activity be carried out in a single location. This place is never named, constantly referred to as "the location I will chose".

Yerushalayim is an unlikely location for a major city. In antiquity it was not located on a major highway. Its terrain is hostile to settlement and it lacks an adequate consistent water supply. On the other hand the topography allows for relatively easy fortification and it is near the geographic centre of the country, providing access to all citizens. And being on a mountain, one has the sense of "ascending the mountain of the Lord".

Tradition holds that Jerusalem, specifically the Temple Mount, is the place from which the world was created, the navel of the earth. Here too Adam was formed from the surrounding soil, here Abraham nearly sacrificed his son and heir Isaac, and here Jacob dreamt of a ladder reaching into the Goodly realm. Heavenly Yerushalayim is exactly above the earthly one -- hence the name Yerushalayim in Hebrew implies a plurality of two. Our Yerushalayim is twinned with God's.

Har haBayit in Yerushalayim was the site selected for God's direct interface with Man. All sacrifices would take place only at this central location. And only here, the holiest place on earth, on the holiest day of the year, the holiest human would request atonement for the whole nation of Israel. Solomon stated that the Temple was open to accept sacrifices from the entire population of the earth and Isaiah reiterates that the future Temple will be "a place of prayer for all peoples".

But the Temple was much more than a place of sacrifice and communion. It was the living heart of the nation, also in ways not devotional. Each member of the Israelite nation came here at least three times a year. They had to bring food with them to consume only here, or they were obligated to purchase food here. This was an important stimulus to the local economy. The produce they brought along with their tithe money, could only be consumed here. Once in Jerusalem, its use was unrestricted. People ate and drank with their friends, relatives and countrymen. They conducted business deals, they discussed the latest farming methods, they made new acquaintances and renewed old ones. This was a forum for the exchange of ideas as much as venue for recharging spiritual batteries.

And it was also the site of the Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. All important national matters were decided here.

The people felt good about themselves, their God and their nation. Their coming together in this focal point gave them national purpose.

At the centre of all this stood the Temple and its continuous service. The Temple was the magnet, the glue, that held the nation together.

With its destruction 1,940 years ago, we lost much more than our ability to sacrifice. We lost our closeness to the Creator, we lost our national rallying point. The flames of the burning Temple also burnt the Jewish nation to cinders. We were scattered to the four corners of the earth, lacking a focal point. No longer could we meet in our home, in Yerushalayim, meet each other and meet our God in His surroundings.

There were attempts to continue coming up to Yerushalayim, to the location of the burnt-out shell of the Temple building. It was difficult -- our enemies realised better than we that to break our nation they needed to break our connection with each other, with our Temple and with our God. Daniel prayed three times daily from Persia in the direction of Yerushalayim and we too continued this practice in our long exile. Daniel's prayers, as recorded in his book, ask for forgiveness for our sins and the speedy rebuilding of the Temple. A large portion of our prayers today contains these themes.

However, from my reading, prayer was not universal, even after Daniel. Throughout the books of the prophets we find reference to schools where mediation was taught and practised. The aim of this meditation was to achieve a closeness to God and to prepare for the possibly of receiving communication from Him. This communication could come at various levels, ranging from ruach haKodesh, a type of intuition, to full blown prophesy. For most adherents it probably never came, but it certainly produced a closeness to the Creator. As mediation required practice, time and frame of mind, it was never widely practised. As Moshe said of Eldad and Medad, "Would it be that all the nation prophesied".

It is hard to postulate why, but it seems that around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, animal sacrifice, once ubiquitous amongst every nation and tribe across the world, suddenly vanished. Prayer and meditation took its place. Why did man suddenly feel he no longer needed to give of himself directly, that atonement is now suddenly possible without pyromaniacal, sensational and visual effects? I don't think this was yet related to urbanisation as at the time we are speaking of, some two thousand years ago, economies were still primarily agrarian.

Today, after two thousand years of ascendancy, prayer in many parts of the world, and amongst many Jews too, is losing its power, its attraction. Churches across Europe are empty and many Jews, while attending synagogue regularly, seem to be praying by rote, something the rabbis of the mishna warn against. Many religious people seem more interested in reaching nearness to the divine via academic means, studying ancient texts in preference to reciting ancient prayers.

In our daily and festival prayers we continue to call for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Temple service. I have written in the past about how this service may manifest itself in the future and how the Samaritans are handling the problem in their situation.

I know most of us do not take these prayer requests seriously, certainly not our self-exiled brethren around the U.S. and many other cities around the globe with sizable Jewish populations. They believe they can be more Jewish in New York or Sydney or Manchester than anywhere in Israel. They claim to be able to provide their children with a better Jewish education than is available in the Holy Land. To them statements like "there is no Torah like the Torah of erets yiroel" ring hollow -- almost jovial -- over there. How can it be? they ask. Artscroll in English is now the ultimate tool in understanding the divine word.

Their claims are almost endless and I've stopped listening to them. I know that deep down, even those calling themselves Zionists, hope (pray may be the wrong word -- but I'm not certain) that it never happens, that they continue their pretend Judaism (Israelitism) in their multimillion dollar temples, built to their own edification. I often wonder what will happen to those structures in the end of days. Probably won't matter really. But what a waste today!

Perhaps our brethren will be left behind when the redemption finally arrives. A large portion of the blame falls on their leaders' shoulders, their "rabbis", many having a self-interest in perpetuating what is by now a self-imposed diaspora.

Is there anything we can do now -- given our leaders here in Israel, political and religious alike, also seem not to want to build the Temple? Sure, they have lots of pragmatic reasons too. Not one of them typifies a proud Jew, proud of his nation, proud of his land and proud of his God.

Education is one thing that is important. If the Temple appeared tomorrow, who would know what to do there. Rav Kook, nearly a century ago, started to learn and teach the laws and practices of Temple work. There are a few specialised schools, and some books have been published on the topic. No-one I am aware of is practising and perfecting the techniques. It's not being taken very seriously.

The Temple Institute has made many of the holy vessels for the Temple, so that when the Temple is built, they are ready for use. Making the required vessels is certainly a positive, very blessed endeavour.

My friends are trying to engage me in a project to build a multi-user computer model simulating the day-to-day workings of the Temple. The simulation allows for viewing the daily activity of the Temple services, from different angles, inside the panoply of buildings and courtyards. Eventually the simulation will allow user participation in events. But as real as the model can be, using the latest animation and virtual reality techniques, it remains just that, only a model, a simulation of something that should be real.

I haven't formulated my position yet, and am in two minds about the project. First it is an enormous enterprise, which will consume a lot of time and money to construct. I suggested that we may save a portion of the expense if we could interest a large body of technical people (nerds) to involve themselves; much like the open source projects developing Linux and lots of other software competing directly with commercial products from the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, etc.

I don't know if this can work in our case, because it is very technical and multifaceted, and I'm not sure it can or should lead to "business". As altruistic as open source programmers may seem, there has to be the possibility of financial reward. For programmers the financial model may involve consulting or writing specialised applications and modules.

One aspect of the Temple, and I think with the model if it is to be realistic, is the total absence of any commercial paradigm. The Temple will certainly not be covered by posters and electronic billboards. As in the past, running costs will be borne by the nation, enabling each individual to know that he is a part of the action, an organic part of the whole. The commercialisation of the model would be treacherous to the modelled, but on the other hand, I can't see people donating to the simulation with the same gusto the people showed when Moses built the Mishkan in desert.

But my main concern is that we are building a model when we should be building the real thing. The time has arrived. And if we really can't do anything physical on site right now, we should be preparing ourselves for the moment we can. Yes we should be building the movable parts, the vessels, the clothes.

And we should be creating infrastructure. An underground railway station near the Temple -- people and animals in large numbers need to be transported. A national rail network. People from all around the country -- and on sukkoth, the whole world -- will converge on Yerushalayim at least three times a year. They will come often if access is easy. The visitors need places to stay, to eat, to meet and to shop.

Were the Temple to appear today, the whole system would come crashing down. We have our work cut out for us, already today.

29th June, 2010    

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