Meaning, I find it hard to visualize what it must have been like, what exactly it gave to us and what exactly we lack now.
It's hard to know what you've never experienced.
Part of the problem is that you read about how things operated, yet at the same time, people started acting like it wasn’t there and all sorts of crazy things happened, like all the times a fake Kohen Gadol went into the Kodesh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies), he entered with a rope around his ankle so that when he dropped dead (Kodesh Kadoshim doesn’t suffer fakes), the people could pull him out for burial without endangering themselves.
Everything about the Beit Hamikdash was set up to make doing the right thing easier and doing the wrong thing harder. It was also set up to atone for when Jews did do the wrong thing because as Rebbe Levi Yitzchack Bender said in Words of Faith, the rituals in the Beit Hamikdash didn’t allow sin to settle on a Jew overnight because the Jewish soul cannot carry sin. Yet today we are forced to carry our sins overnight and even for years. (Unless we sit with Hashem every day to do a cheshbon nefesh…or at least, we immediately acknowledge our sin and ask forgiveness.)
So here’s my best shot at what it must have been like:
A Look Inside the Beit Hamikdash
- the air was imbued with the scent of Ketoret and the roasting meat of the korbonot
- you heard the melodies of the Leviim singing as they played their flutes, horns, harps, and drums
- you saw the tremendous beauty of marble, gold, and copper all around you
- the techeilet color worn by the Kohanim was not just a sky blue, but a deep, rich azure
- you walked barefoot on smooth marble
- the emotional atmosphere consisted of profound spirituality, which included sincere teshuvah and lofty joy.
- healing of past traumas came so easily
- it was easy to feel unity, Hashem’s Love along with your own love for others, and forgiveness.
(Please see the Kli Yakar on detailed symbolism of the Mishkan and the Kodesh Kadoshim.)
Today, we know that some scents can be described as “heady.” Furthermore, inhaling certain substances can even make you high. But it’s a false demonic high.
Scent is incredibly powerful; you probably have known the experience of catching a smell you haven’t smelled in years and being taken back to that original experience (whether for good or for bad).
Yet the scent of the Ketoret was special.
Made with specific ingredients in specific amounts, it enhanced the spiritual experience with total purity. Ketoret was Holy and by inhaling it, you became infused with untainted Holiness and spirituality. This gave you a shortcut of sorts to the very things we fight so hard for today: teshuvah, feeling close to Hashem, davening with a focused mind and a captivated heart…Ketoret also repelled flies, and nullified scorpions and snakes wherever the scent wafted. Ketoret could also stop even the most rabid plague.
Even today, just reading the Ketoret service provides powerful protection against disease, family disharmony, and klippot (forces of spiritual impurity) while opening channels of success (both financial and spiritual).
If that’s true of just its reading, imagine what being infused with its scent must have been like!
(See more at How Ketoret Proctects against Spiritual Tumah.)
Many modern Jews struggle to relate to the Korbonot (Sacrifices). In short, Korbonot were performed with specific actions in specific amounts on specific animals. Everything was highly symbolic and the Kohanim themselves dedicated themselves out of heartfelt concern for the errant Jews offering the Korbonot and out of their own personal sense of intimacy with Hashem. Living within the Beit Hamikdash as it were, the Kohanim were constantly infused with the entire atmosphere - heart, body, and soul.
The entire physical ritual of the Korbonot reflected a spiritual process which affected the baal teshuvah on the inside by spiritually cremating all that person’s bad thoughts and taavot that led to the sin in the first place!
But as people began to relate to the Korbonot by rote, they clogged the opening for the spiritual effect to penetrate, which also clogged the preventive effect.
In other words, those offering the korbon didn’t want the atonement and prevention enough. Going through the motions was enough for them, tragically speaking.
(See the Kli Yakar on more detailed symbolism of the Kohanim and the Ketoret and here for a short explanation of how the Korbonot worked on an inner spiritual level.)
Ah, music…this is what I’m affected by the most. I could get lost within just the right song.
Today, popular music is calculated and produced to hit a person’s brain in just the right way. Producers have fine-tuned tempo, chord structure, beat, and timing to a science.
Just the “right” song can pull you from a lively mood into one of longing, nostalgia, or tears within minutes. Yet just the “right” upbeat song can imbue renewed energy and cheer to a gloomy person, even igniting him to dance.
Today’s music has been one of the strongest influences in society’s downward spiral. (TV/movies and books/newspapers are its competition for what gets First Place in the promotion of immoral gunk.) I even read a disturbing account of a prisoner in a torture chamber during the Balkan War of the Nineties whose guitar-playing inflamed tired or uninterested torturers back into torture-mode.
(And no, he wasn’t forced to play. Sick, I know.)
But the music of the Beit Hamikdash hit all the right notes—literally. Every note, every instrument, every voice was meant to uplift your heart in the purest and most genuine way.
With today’s heavy bass pounding away in even the frummest venues, it’s hard to imagine the profound and heart-lifting effect of soft drums, flutes, harps, clear horns, and Levite tenors and baritones on the heart of a Jew among the infusion of Ketoret surrounded by marble and rich gleaming metals.
Frum Allure Back Then vs Non-Jewish Allure Now
- People complain that frum books (whether non-fiction or novels) just aren’t as compelling as secular books.
- And which article do you turn to first in a frum magazine - the dvar Torah or the newest chapter of the serial novel or news feature?
- Does a blog post on a dvar Torah ever get nearly the same number of comments as a post on something more current and "exciting"?
And even the most insulated frum people perceive frum music as so lacking that they need to spice it up by taking the worst of non-Jewish music and applying it to frum lyrics and Torah verses.
Holy niggunim crafted by tzaddikim “need” bass and synthesizer added to make them appealing to a frum audience today.
In fact, one of the hardest things to let go of for those Jewish children (and I mean those who remembered their love of Judaism and had grown up in committed Torah families) hidden in convents and monasteries during the Shoah were the songs and melodies of the idolatrous religious services.
Physical Beauty and Impressiveness
And is there a shul that rivals in physical beauty the Vatican or Eastern temples or the more exquisitely designed mosques?
Look at the Kotel remnant of our Beit Hamikdash: pigeons roosting among moss in its crevices, old lumpy stones speckled with erosion and bird-droppings…it’s still beautiful to me and to so many others, but to the physical eye, can it compare to what the other nations have?
In December, drive through the streets of America and look at a Jewish home with its Chanukiyah in the window next to the light-shows decorating the lawns and houses of the non-Jewish neighbors.
How many Jewish children have begged their parents to put up "Chanukah lights" ("Just blue and white lights, Mom and Dad! Pleeeease?") or begged for a tree?
And how many people find the smell of cigarettes, marijuana, perfume (with names like Poison or Opium or Obsession or Fantasy), and incense more alluring than the aroma of baking challahs and chocolate yeast cakes, simmering cholent, roses in a vase on the Shabbat table, or the Havdalah spice?
With the Destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, pure and true spirituality went underground in a sense. Today, you have to dig for it.
Back in the time of the Beit Hamikdash, all you had to do was go there and you had something that was obviously better in every way than anything the nations had to offer.
(Not to mention the mere fact of its existence and operation contributed something to your spiritual efforts even if you were physically far from the Beit Hamikdash.)
Struggling to Grasp on to What Once Came So Easily
But even with that, so much still depends on us working ourselves up to it.
Sometimes, a Jew visits a holy tzaddik and feels…nothing. A nice guy, to be sure, but nothing more than that.
I know of FFB Jews who heard about the holiness of and special experiences at the Kotel only to finally arrive there in person and feel…nothing. I myself would go visit holy gravesites, only to feel disappointed at feeling…nothing.
Now I feel more at gravesites, but nothing nearly as strong as what I feel at the Kotel. Interestingly, even though I still feel something special at the Kotel each time I go, it doesn’t compare to that initial wallop of spirituality and holiness I felt the first several times I went to the Kotel as a secular teenager completely immersed in a non-Jewish lifestyle.
My point is that even with the spiritual boosts we have today, there are no guarantees even if you really, really want that boost.
(Really, you should hear the disappointment saturating the voice of a Jew who really wanted what the Kotel had to offer, but just didn't feel anything. It's heartbreaking.)
Yet in the times of the Beit Hamikdash, all you had to do was want what it had to offer—and you got it. Guaranteed!
Today, you have to struggle SO HARD for every little drop of spiritual inspiration…and even then, your achievement within that exertion varies from moment to moment.
And even when you get it, how long can you maintain it?
And no matter how much you want it, not only can you not necessarily maintain it, you often can’t even get there at all.
(Fortunately, any spiritual effort reaps massive dividends in the Upper Realms even if you don't sense a darn thing down here.)
May our Beit Hamikdash be rebuilt and restored to its former glory speedily in our days.