“Do not drink intoxicating wine … when you come into the Tent of Meeting, so that you will not die” (Vayikra 10:9).
After the death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, Hashem commanded Aharon regarding the restriction against intoxicating drinks when entering the sanctuary. Our Sages learn from here that a Kohen must also be meticulous in garb when entering the Mikdash (Zevachim 18a). The Sefer Hachinuch adds that any flaw or stain on a garment is subject to a penalty of death. This stringency applies even though a Kohen worked in a place where animals were brought to slaughter all day long. One look at a butcher’s apron will leave one questioning how a Kohen was expected to remain spotless in such a workplace.
These laws applied to any Kohen who entered the Holy area of our Temple. The Kohen Gadol, who entered the Holy of Holies once a year, was further restricted. In his case, even a mundane thought was cause for death. When he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, a rope was tied to him because the possibility of death was so distinct that the people needed a way to pull him out without entering themselves.
What is the reason for this extreme treatment of the Mikdash?
Imagine someone who has a wart or similar benign growth that must be removed. If the doctor is not so expert and doesn’t perform the procedure with exactitude, it may possibly be harmful but certainly not life threatening. On the other hand, should a surgeon perform open heart or brain surgery without extreme caution and precision, the result of his negligence could be life threatening.
Our Torah teaches that not all places on Earth are equal in holiness. The Land of Israel is holier than other countries. The City of Jerusalem is on a higher level than the rest of the country. The Temple Mount is closer to Heaven than the other parts of Yerushalayim. Even within the Mikdash, the areas are of unequal holiness. Each requires a greater degree of respect than the one with less holiness.
How careful they had to be! We long for the rebuilding of the Mikdash but can offer a sigh of relief that we are not subject to such strict penalties. Or can we?
Today we offer our tefillot in a special place called the synagogue. Our shuls are filled with our brethren coming to serve Hashem. The Rabbis have named these special places for prayer “Mikdash Me’at — the Small Temple.” The interior spaces of our shuls are holier than the homes we live in and the streets we take to get to them. The halachah is very clear that one who enters must respect the sanctity of the shul. How one dresses, how one sits and what one says are all subject to the principle of “awe and respect.” Talking in shul about mundane street matters is forbidden. Talking in tones that we use with our friends is not permitted when sitting in a holy place. Even talking about matters that pertain to our services and Torah reading are restricted to limited times during our prayers. The great Rabbis of previous generations clearly state that our Redemption is held back by any disrespect shown to our holy places.
We all hope and pray that Hashem will bring Moshiach and the Final Redemption and with it an end to all suffering. Renewed respect for our shuls will certainly bring that joyous day closer. Let’s resolve, each one of us, to make the effort necessary to achieve that end.