Dear Rabbi,

It occurred to me that we often talk about the symbolism of the mountaintop setting of the Giving of the Torah, as well as the life lessons gleaned from that locale. I don't recall, however, learning about the symbolism behind the fact that the two Temples—and the third one to be built by Moshiach, please, G‑d, soon—were built on a mountain in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. Is there a meaning and a lesson to this?


Great question. Let us explore the fact that the Temple was built on a mountain, and then we can unpack its lessons.

If we look at the verses in the Torah that command us to build a Temple, we find no references to the idea that is should be constructed on a mountain. Rather, it is alluded to almost parenthetically in the Book of Deuteronomy.1

Indeed, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which was the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem and was set up in the desert by Moses, was built on a flat surface! Had there been any commandment or hint for it to be built on high ground, you could bet that Moses and the Israelites would have done so gladly.

So if there was no Divine request for a Temple on a mountain, and the Tabernacle wasn’t erected on a peak, then did the site of the Temples just happen to be at an elevation?

A foundational principle in Judaism is that there are no coincidences in life, especially in something as significant as the Earthly Abode for the Divine. If the Temples stood on a mountaintop, then there is a deep lesson for all of us.

Holiness demands growth. The opposite of growth isn’t descent; it’s stagnation. We must move upward constantly. Yesterday’s success was the actualization of yesterday’s potential. Today demands fresh ideas, new vistas and novel approaches to the opportunities and challenges that G‑d puts before us today.

One can suggest that the Mishkan in the desert was the beginning of the journey and was therefore on flatlands. Growth demands that the next step be higher. Hence, the Temples in Jerusalem were placed on a mountain to symbolize that even the holiest of places can grow and elevate itself.

To further this metaphor: Not only was the Temple erected on high ground, the Temple itself had many levels. As one went deeper into the Temple compound, one found themselves climbing more and more stairs, ascending level after level. Thus, we must constantly grow. Even once we’ve entered the realm of holiness, we must grow higher and higher!2

On a personal note: My father, who passed away a few short weeks ago, epitomized this ideal. He was constantly reinventing himself. He never allowed the successes of yesterday to blind him to the calling of today. He directed a publishing house (sometimes printing a new book each month), all while raising 12 children. And if that wasn’t enough, he decided about 20 years ago that he had a knack for matchmaking and went on to make hundreds of matches.

Here is a beautiful story that exemplifies this trait. Just under two years ago, my father suffered total kidney failure, and his life was in the balance. One of my siblings questioned the doctors about my father’s chances of survival. The doctors were noncommittal. They couldn’t offer any promises or even hopeful news. My father immediately picked up from the faces around him that his chances were slim.

What did he do?

My father always had manuscripts on him that needed to be edited. He had a policy, which he based on a memo from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to him, that every single book that was released by his publishing house had to be fully proofread by him. He would take full responsibility for anything published.

Lying in the hospital bed, facing his own mortality, my father started editing.

When he was asked why he didn’t just take the time to rest, my father responded, “This was the task given to me by my teacher, the Rebbe. This is my life’s mission. If I have a few moments left in this world, I want to use them to do what I was sent here to do. If I go up, I want to go up doing my calling. 3

My father did recover somewhat and lived for almost two years after that incident. But even during the many challenges and trials he faced until his untimely passing, he never stopped his work. On his last day of life, he managed to purify himself in the mikvah (a Chassidic custom that he was fervently committed to, and which due to his weakness demanded lots of stamina), pray with a minyan, proofread his upcoming books, and make some calls and send emails regarding setting up potential matches. He even bought a gift for my mother’s birthday, which was the following day.

He never stopped growing, up until his very last minute. He continuously ascended the stairs of his Temple.

Dedicated in loving memory of my dear father, Rabbi Yonah (ben R' Meir) Avtzon, whose shloshim will be observed on Friday, 3 Adar I.