The Holy Temple that was planned by King David and built by King Solomon was erected on Mount Moriah, which then became known as Har HaBayit, or Temple Mount. The peak of the mountain had a flat surface, but it sloped down on all sides. Given the large size of the complex, only the core of the Temple stood on a flat surface. The courtyard areas were built on the sides of the mountain, requiring a good number of stairs to navigate the incline.

When describing the layout of the Temple, Maimonides begins by saying that “The Temple complex was not built entirely on flat ground, but rather on the incline of the mountain.”1 He proceeds to detail the various areas that constituted the Temple complex, explaining that the more sacred the section, the higher up the mountain it was located:

Getting from the rampart (known as the chayl) to the Women’s Courtyard involved climbing twelve steps. To reach the Courtyard of the Israelites – which is where the Temple proper begins – required an ascent of a fifteen more steps. The Priestly Courtyard was one step above, followed by a platform raised by three steps. To enter the Grand Hall (known as the ulam), one would need to go up another fifteen steps. The rest of the Temple main building was on the same level.2

The fact that the Temple complex involved dozens of steps is unsurprising, seeing as it was situated on a mountain, which by its very nature has slopes. But why does Maimonides emphasize that the entire Temple complex was not on a single level? He could just as well have given the description of the levels and the steps between them and it would have been abundantly clear that there were varying gradations.

It seems clear that Maimonides was intent on highlighting that the Temple was not flat by writing, “The Temple complex was not built entirely on flat ground, but rather on the incline of the mountain.” It would have been simpler for him to write: “The Temple complex was built on the incline of the mountain.” Instead, he specifies that the Temple was not on flat ground, as if this is a detail of significance – not merely a result of the topography.

It seems particularly peculiar that the elevation of the Temple would be treated as a key feature, given that most aspects of the Temple were modeled after the portable Tabernacle (Mishkan) used by the Israelites in the desert – and that Tabernacle was, of course, all on a single plane. If the differing levels of the Temple were an inevitable consequence of its location, that would be one thing, but why would Maimonides give the impression that the Temple’s multiple levels were intentional, when that is a marked deviation from the original sanctuary constructed by Moses?

The Rebbe’s explanation puts things in an entirely different perspective: The reason the Temple was built in gradations was not because it was built on the side of a mountain. The opposite is true: because the Temple was supposed to have varying levels, that is why it was situated on the side of a mountain!

But why? The Tabernacle with which the Israelites sojourned through the desert was entirely level, why would the Temple in Jerusalem need to be different?

It turns out, says the Rebbe, that this issue gets to the very heart of what the Temple was for, and the most significant manner in which it differed from the Tabernacle.

The holiness of the Tabernacle was entirely contained to the parts out of which it was assembled—its boards, coverings, curtains, etc. There was no holiness in the ground upon which the Tabernacle stood; it could have been established anywhere.

In contrast, the place where the Temple stood was hallowed ground, sacred from the beginning of history.3 The Temple was to be established “in the place that G‑d shall choose to set his name there”4 - a uniquely holy spot possessing special characteristics for being the residence of G‑d’s presence on earth.

Moreover, the land upon which the Tabernacle stood was never consecrated, and the minute the Tabernacle was taken down the land upon which it had stood minutes earlier returned to its mundane use. We don’t know of a single spot where the Tabernacle stood during its four decades in the desert.

The land upon which the Temple stood, on the other hand, was consecrated, and remains sacred to this day. The holiness of the Temple Mount survived the destruction of the Temple that was built upon it. Indeed, Maimonides5 rules that sacrificial offerings may be brought there even if the Temple is no longer standing.

So, the sacredness of the Tabernacle was in its structure, while the sacredness of the Temple was in its land. The holiness of the land upon which the Tabernacle stood was only because it held the sanctuary; with the Temple it was the other way round: the holiness of Temple was because it stood on holy ground.

Now we understand why the Temple had to be on levels. Because the holiness of the Temple was so connected to the sacredness of the land, the stages of holiness also had to be reflected in their position on the incline toward the pinnacle of the mountain.

The varying levels of sanctity of the Temple edifice were a product of the varying levels of sacredness of the land on which it stood. Each successive upgrade in sacredness required a commensurate physical elevation up the mountain.

The only exception was the innermost sanctum known as the Holy of Holies – the place of the Ark of the Covenant – whose holiness was so immense that it rose above the confines of space. The Holy of Holies thus did not need to be further elevated from the main sanctuary building, because it represented a level of holiness so lofty that transcends all physical dimensions.

There is an important lesson inherent in all of this. While we may be passing through this physical world, we have a mission to leave a permanent imprint of holiness. It was a central part of the Divine plan to invest the material reality with true holiness, so as to transform our universe into a place imbued and saturated with G‑dliness. It is not enough to build a Tabernacle that makes its space holy for the duration of its existence. Rather, the entire world must become like the place of the Temple, sanctified and elevated to a state of holiness.

As true as this is about the holiest place on earth, it is also true to a significant extent in our own space. By doing mitzvot we can bring true holiness into our homes and into the physical objects we own. When we live lives of sanctity, we succeed in uplifting the very world to its intended state of G‑dliness. We have both the power and the duty to transform darkness into light, and the physical into spiritual.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 29, Parshat Reeh I.