Parshas Beshalach (5773)
One of the very first questions I was asked when I began teaching Jews about Judaism over 20 years ago is the following:
Jewish tradition teaches that when the Messiah comes, the Third Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) will be built upon the exact spot which the First and Second Temples were built – with the Kodesh HaKadashim (lit. “Holy of Holies”, the most sanctified part of the Temple) situated directly on top of the huge rock known to our tradition as the Even Shesiyah (lit. “Foundation Stone”) which is in the middle of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The problem is that for the last 1300 years or so, that spot has been occupied by the Dome of the Rock, which is in the center of a greater Muslim shrine built in 691 CE at the order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik and known as the Haram ash Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), and which Muslims believe commemorates Muhammad's miraculous Night Journey into heaven. So how exactly do we Jews plan to tear down the Dome of the Rock and build our Holy Temple on that exact site, without incurring the wrath of, oh, around one billion Muslims the world over, not to mention the anti-semitic Europeans, and, of course, the UN?
Good question, eh? What do you say to that?
Well, while you’re thinking of what you would answer, let me tell you what I said. I told the questioner that the same G-d that we believe will bring down the already built Third Temple from heaven can also easily zap that Muslim shrine out of existence and protect us from any harm. Then I told him that even if we believe that the Third Temple will not miraculously descend from heaven when the Messiah comes but instead will be built by the Messiah himself with help from the Jewish people, we can still explain how this can work without anybody getting hurt.
You see, we believe that when the final redemption occurs with the arrival of King Messiah, the entire world will unite under the One True G-d. As the prophet Zephania says to the Jewish people regarding what will happen during the Messianic Era: "For then I will change the nations [to speak] a pure language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of G-d, to worship Him with a united resolve" (Zephania 3:9). We also recite the Aleinu prayer daily in which we pray to G-d that when the redemption occurs, “all humanity will call upon Your Name…all the world’s inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend…” [Just to clarify, this does not mean that during the Messianic Era everyone will become Jewish. After all, someone’s got to pay retail!
It just means that all of humanity – Jew and non-Jew alike – will recognize the truth and will all worship G-d together as one.]
If this is so, I told the questioner, then it is eminently conceivable that when we Jews attempt to take down the Dome of the Rock in order to build our Holy Temple on that exact site, the Muslims themselves – having recognized that Judaism is the truth and that they had been following a false prophet all along – will assist us in our efforts to tear down their shrine so as to make room for the construction of our Holy Temple on its rightful spot.
These two answers – although I didn’t know this at the time, amateur that I was – actually reflect two different traditions of our Sages as to exactly what will happen when the Messiah comes.
One view, held by Rashi in his commentary to Sukkah 41a and others, is that the Third Temple in all its glory will descend from heaven already built and ready for the Jewish people to enter and pray in. This is based on a Midrash on a verse in this week’s Torah portion at the end of the “Song at the Sea” in which the Jewish people prophesy regarding the Third Temple: “Mikdash Hashem konenu yadecha – the Sanctuary, my Lor-d, that Your hands established” (Exodus 15:17, see Rashi ibid), indicating that it will be built by G-d’s hands, as it were.
A second view, held by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings 11:1) and others, is that the King Messiah is going to build the Third Temple with the help of the Jewish people, as part of the three main tasks he needs to accomplish as king (the other two tasks, in case you are wondering, are to gather in all the exiles and to destroy the wicked nation of Amalek).
There are actually two other lesser-known views as to who exactly will build the Third Temple when the Messiah arrives. The Aruch LaNer, in his commentary to Sukkah 41a, suggests a compromise. Indeed, the physical frame and structure of the Temple will be built my human beings. But just as a body cannot come alive without G-d first breathing a Divine neshamah (breath of soul) into it, so, too, will the Third Temple built by man only be complete when G-d sends down into it its exact “soul’ replica in the spiritual world to make it come alive and to give it spiritual vitality.
A fourth and final view is held by the great Torah sage, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin ZT”L (1818–1898), who comments on a prayer that we say on Passover, Shavuos and Sukkos. In the Mussaf service we beseech G-d that He should bring the Messiah and build the Third Temple and that He should “show us its rebuilding and gladden us in its perfection“. He explains that G-d will build the Third Temple all by Himself as indicated by the Midrash quoted earlier. However, we find in the Book of Lamentations that when the Temple was destroyed, the gates of the Temple were preserved by being sunk into the earth (see Eichah 2:9). The question is what is the point of hiding the gates if G-d is to bring down an already-built Temple from heaven?
Rabbi Diskin explains that the Jewish people’s joy at the rebuilding of the Third Temple would not be complete if G-d did everything by Himself since they would then be deprived of the opportunity to do the mitzvah of building a sanctuary for G-d (see Exodus 25:8). Therefore, G-d in His infinite wisdom and compassion decided that the gates to the Temple would be hidden so that when He finally brings down the Third Temple from heaven, it will be missing the gates and will not be complete until the Jewish people put on the finishing touches by attaching the gates that were sunk into the earth, thus affording them the chance to take part in this special mitzvah of building the Temple. This is the intent of the prayer in which we ask G-d to “show us its rebuilding” by bringing down the near-complete Third Temple, and to “gladden us in its perfection“ by allowing us to affix the gates, thus making the Temple perfect.
Frankly, I don’t mind whoever builds the Third Temple, as long as it happens. For as soon as G-d or the Messiah builds it, the Jewish people will come back to Israel to live together as one united nation the way it should be.