To understand what the Temple meant to our nation, we'll need a bit of background.
Jewish history is the story of a nation preparing; of a people moving towards a goal. For our forefathers, the goal was the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Since then, we strive both as a nation and as individuals to become worthy of that revelation by achieving perfection in Divine service. The Temple has historically played a giant role in this journey.
In each of its manifestations (whether as a tent-like Mishkan or full blown marble, gold and cedar Temple), the Temple has served as the focal point of this national struggle. One might say that the Temple's changing appearance served as signposts; inspiring us to greater spiritual ambitions. Perhaps, too, our growth over the centuries was reflected by the changes - the Temple serving as a kind of barometer. It might also be fair to suggest that our failings were the cause, not only of the eventual destruction of the Temples, but of their steadily falling fortunes.
And what about the Temple service itself?
How does the sacrificial service help us? To answer that, we'll have to think about the purpose of the Temple sacrifice. Of course, while intense effort can certainly help us develop a working understanding of the Temple's function and purpose, we must acknowledge that there will always be elements of the Divine master plan that lie beyond our capacity. Here, we'll follow, as best we can, the thoughts of the Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 95).
God expects and wants nothing more of us than to fear Him with pure hearts and serve Him to the best of our abilities. And we've been given the means to reach that goal: the commandments (mitzvos).
The pure heart may be the center of a Godly life, but man is drawn after his actions. What he does has a greater effect than what he says or thinks.
When we do something wrong - when we, in effect, rebel against God's rule - what is there that can undo the damage? How can we make it as though the mistake had never been made? There's teshuva (repentance). There's regret for the past slip and the promise to try never to do it again. That God has given us this wonderful gift of teshuva is in itself a great kindness.
Teshuva is wonderful, but sometimes we need inspiration, road markers to help us along the way.
Partly to that end, God commanded us to set aside a place of high purity, distinct from the everyday, mundane world. This place would be the site of undiluted Godly service, of kohanim working tirelessly at their tasks, of the fulfillment of the Will of God.
It was to this place (the Temple) that we would come after a spiritual fall. What better medicine could there be for someone who has just stumbled than to spend time in the place where the proper service of God was not only in practice, but at its peak?
But we wouldn't only watch. Remember, we are drawn after our actions. We would bring along an animal (or bird or meal) offering from our own flock - from our own homes. Our offering was taken from us and slaughtered instead of us (for don't we deserve as much for rebelling against the true King?).
Each part of the service was meant to inspire us to think seriously about our lives and the way we use both our bodies and minds. The very fact that we gave up such an expensive and useful animal led us to reconsider our priorities ("was owning things like this really the object of my life's work?").
And it isn't just the sin offering (the chatas) that should get us thinking. Each offering and activity in the Temple contains its own library of inspiring and educational thoughts. In fact, according to the comprehensive thought-system of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (found particularly in his commentary to Exodus 25-30 and Leviticus 1-8), the Temple service in all its detail is designed to teach humans the very essence of Godly living at every point in our lives. Thus, a trip to Jerusalem could, if used properly, spark deep spiritual maturation.
Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high
school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada).
You may reach him here with comments and questions