In each of the "three dimensions" of Creation – time, space and life itself – we find a hierarchy of holiness or pyramid of importance. In the temporal realm, Shabbos is the holiest day of the week. And Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.
In the realm of sentiment life, man is the crown of creation, of course. And within the family of man, the Jewish People is the most sanctified – by virtue of its acceptance of Torah. In the context of the Jewish People itself, the tribe of Levi represents the upper section of the pyramid, the kohanim (priests) the upper part of this upper section, and the High Priest (Kohain Godol) the very pinnacle of sanctity.
In the spatial realm, the Land of Israel is holiest: "Hashem keeps His eyes on it (as it were) from the beginning of the year until the end of the year" (Deut. 11:12). It is the palace of the King of Kings, and thus every Mitzvah performed here has special importance and every sin perpetrated within its borders carries an extra measure of effrontery.
Moving up the spatial ladder of holiness, we come to Jerusalem, the holiest of cities and its Temple Mount (also known as Mount Moriah), the locus of the Beis Hamikdash and the Altar. The Temple Altar stood on the very place where Avraham bound his son Yitzchak to another altar, at Hashem's behest, many years earlier. The landmark importance of the spot goes all the way back to the time of Adam!
A Palpable Sense of the Divine Presence
The multitudes who went up to the Temple Mount to worship, or just to visit, would have had no doubt that they were in the presence of Hashem. They could not have failed to be impressed by the 90-degree angle at which the smoke rose skyward from the Altar regardless of how strong the wind blew. Or the "obliviousness" of the pillar of smoke to even the strongest rains. (see Pirkei Avos 5:7 for a listing of additional miracles).
It is paradoxical, perhaps, that their keen awareness of the Divine Presence on the Temple Mount gave the Jews a false sense of security when the inclination to sin got the better of them. "The Palace of Hashem, the Palace of Hashem," they countered when the Prophet warned them that their conduct would bring on catastrophic destruction.
The people failed to understand that the Temple was significant primarily as a symbolic expression of the Divine Presence in the heart of each individual Jew. As Hashem Himself puts it: "Have them build Me a Temple and I will dwell within them." Once the people had essentially crowded Hashem out of their hearts, the Temple became a hollow shell. When the enemy finally razed the Temple, a Voice called out from Heaven: "You have destroyed a destroyed House!"
The artillery of sin destroyed the Beis Hamikdash before the enemy reached the site! And thus the prophetic warning of the Torah came to the pass: "I will lay waste your holy Sanctuaries" (Lev. 26:31).
The Master of the Universe asks two things of us vis-á-vis His Temple: The first is to feel and display mora (awe/reverence/fear) upon approaching the Temple Mount and the Beis Hamikdash. We do this, for instance, by removing our shoes before entering and by exiting backside first. In detailing these requirements, Maimonides notes that a person should see himself as being in the presence of G-d and have the requisite sense of fear and trembling.
In addition to this Affirmative Commandment, we were given a Prohibitory Commandment as well: ritually impure individuals (t'mei'im) may not enter a large portion of the Temple Mount. While these areas are clearly delineated in Jewish Law, they are not marked nowadays on the Temple Mount itself. And since everyone alive today is considered to be "ritually impure" (due to the absence of the purifying mechanism known as the mei parah), we are all barred from going up to the Temple Mount. This prohibition is as severe as the prohibition against eating on Yom Kippur!!
In his monumental Code of Jewish Law, Maimonides writes: "Even though the Temple has been destroyed (through our sins) an individual is enjoined to show mora (awe) just as when the Temple was still standing. And he is barred from going into any place where entry is forbidden (in Temple times). This is because the holiness of the Temple and of Jerusalem is due to the Divine Presence. And that has not disappeared. On the verse, 'I will lay waste your holy Sanctuaries,' the Sages comment: 'Even though they are in ruins, their sanctity remains!"
Now, Maimonides' assertion that the Divine Presence has not abandoned the site of the Temple is, at first glance, perplexing. We know that our ancestors had virtually destroyed the Temple through their sins before their enemies arrived on the scene. Hadn't Hashem turned away from them and withdrawn the Divine Presence from His holy Sanctuary?
Our Tradition explains that while there was a withdrawal – or concealment – it was not total. A trace of the Divine Presence remained. It is symbolized by the remnant of the Temple complex that has been the focus of Jewish hopes and prayers for millennia: The Western Wall.
Since the Divine Presence is still associated with the Temple Mount, it follows that the laws reflecting the holiness of the Temple still apply.
Rebuilding the Temple Within
G-d's continued association with the site of the Temple has implications for us on the most personal level. As noted above, G-d's "dwelling-place" in our midst, is both an expression of and a vehicle for His Presence in our hearts. The sins of our ancestors distanced them from Him, but nonetheless, He did not abandon them; He did not remove His Presence entirely from the site of the Temple.
In the same way, our own sins may have distanced us from our Maker, may have almost crowded His Presence out of our hearts. We may have destroyed the Temple within us by acting against His wishes, by rejecting His guidelines. But a remnant of that inner Temple remains, just as a remnant of the Beis Hamikdash still stands at the foot of the Temple Mount. We can take heart. We have not been abandoned.
Indeed, our Father in Heaven is waiting for us to rebuild that Temple within us right now. Work on this Temple does not have to wait for the advent of Mashiach.