Higher Levels on Mount Moriah; Ascending Plateaus of Holiness

In Hilchos Beis HaBechirah, the Rambam writes:1

The [Beis Ha]Mikdash was not built on a level plane, but rather on the incline of the mountain. A per­son who entered the eastern gate of the Mount [of the] Beis [HaMikdash] would proceed until the end of the sur­rounding rampart on one level. He would ascend from the surrounding rampart to the Woman’s Courtyard with twelve steps, each step being half a cubit high, and half a cubit wide....

He would ascend from [the Women’s Courtyard] to the Courtyard of the Israelites... with fifteen steps.... He would ascend from it to the Priestly Courtyard with one step, a cubit high. Above [that step] was a platform of three steps, each a half-cubit in height....

From [the Courtyard], he would ascend to the Entrance Hall [of the Sanctuary] with twelve steps.... The Entrance Hall and the Sanctuary were on the same plane.

The Various Levels in the Beis HaMikdash

The commentaries2 note that these ascents correspond to different levels of holiness within the Beis HaMikdash. As the Rambam writes in the following chapter:3

The Women’s Courtyard is holier than the surrounding rampart.... The Courtyard of the Israelites is holier than the Women’s Courtyard.... The Priestly Courtyard is holier than [the Courtyard of the Israelites....] The Sanctuary is holier than [the portion of the Courtyard] between the altar and the Entrance Hall.

As one ascended to higher levels of holiness within the Beis HaMikdash, one made an actual physical ascent. The four points at which a person was required to climb steps, represented four different planes of holiness.4

A Reflection of the Spiritual Within the Material Context of Our Existence

The Rambam’s wording — “was not..., but rather” — ap­pears to indicate that build­ing the Beis HaMikdash in this manner was not merely a struc­tural necessity because of the situation of the building on Mount Moriah, but rather, a halachic requirement. The construction of the Beis HaMikdash on differ­ent levels, reflecting the different planes of holiness, was part of the Divine vision granted to King David which served as the source for the plans for the structure of the complex.

What is the rationale for such a concept? The selection of Mount Moriah as “the place which G‑d your L‑rd shall choose,”5 changed the nature of that site for all time. The actual physical place became holy. Therefore, the varying levels of height within that place mirrored the different spiritual levels associated with it.6

The distinction between these different levels of holiness and their connection to their actual physical site is reflected by the fact that these distinctions remain for all time, even after the Beis HaMikdash has been destroyed. Thus the Rambam states7 that it is permitted to partake of sacrifices of the most holy or­der (ohase hase) on the site of the Courtyard of the Beis HaMik­dash, even though the structure is destroyed and the courtyard is not set aside by a divider. This indicates that, not only does the sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash as a whole remain in the present era — all the particular distinctions associated with the different levels of holiness also continue to prevail.

A Totally Unique Plane of Holiness

This concept, however, prompts a question: Why wasn’t the Holy of Holies higher than the Sanctuary? The Holy of Holies represented the ultimate peak of sanctity within the world, the place where G‑d’s presence was manifest in a revealed manner. Why wasn’t this dimension also reflected within the actual structure of the Beis HaMikdash?

Within this question itself, however, lies the key to its resolution. The sanctity of the Holy of Holies was on a totally different plane from the other portions of the Beis HaMikdash. The differences between the other levels of holiness were rela­tive, and a comparison could be made between one level and another. Hence, these differences were able to be expressed by a difference in height. The Holy of Holies, by contrast, could not be compared to any of the other portions of the Beis HaMikdash. The manifestation of the Divine Presence placed it in a cate­gory of its own. Indeed, this distinction was so unique that it could not be expressed in physical terms.8

These concepts have parallels in our divine service. A per­son must realize that his spiritual development requires contin­ual growth. As a person ascends to a higher level of holiness, he must also elevate himself as a person.9

Ultimately, however, a person must realize that the highest levels of spiritual fulfillment cannot be attained by virtue of one’s own achievements. It is only through nullifying one’s self entirely that one becomes a resting place for the Divine Pres­ence and a vehicle for the expression of His will.

May the above concepts soon be expressed in actual physical terms, with the coming of the Redemption and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. And then, “we will ascend, appear, and bow down before You;”10 may this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXIX, Parshas Re’eh