As we reach the end of the sequence of festivals, which starts with Rosh Hashanah and then climaxes with Yom Kippur, only to soar again with the festival of Succot, it is worth reflecting on the drama and theatre which was played out in the Temple over those days.
On Yom Kippur came the personal drama of the High Priest, dressed all in white, who entered the Holy of Holies, his life depending on his honesty and sincerity. Crowds gathered to watch spectacle of the water-drawing ceremony on Succot.
The sheer volume of sacrifices, which we read about in the daily Torah portion on Succot, starting with the first day, must have made for a staggering cavalcade of blood and entrails: “Thirteen oxen, two rams and fourteen sheep...”
The Talmud says: “Whosoever has never seen the Temple (in Jerusalem) in its completed form has never seen architectural magnificence”. All the more startling, therefore, are the cycle of rabbinic aphorisms, which are attributed to the generation of the destruction of the Temple, to show that however grand or inspiring, the Temple does not represent the core values of Judaism.
In a late collection of midrashic selections called Yalkut Shimoni (Hosea 247), we are told that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were walking amid the ruins of the Temple . Rabbi Joshua bemoaned our terrible loss and wondered how the Jewish people could survive without the atonement of the sacrifices.
Rabbi Yochanan responded that we nevertheless have an alternative path to forgiveness, gemilut chasadim, acts of kindness. For all the beauty and spectacle, we value an act of friendship or generosity as equal to the visual spectacle as a valid path to spiritual redemption.