They shall clear the ash from the altar and spread a cloth of purple wool
Rashi: The fire that descended from Heaven would crouch under the cloth like
a lion during their travels. It would not burn the cloth, because they would
turn a large copper pot over it.
Maharal: Rashi points to a two-fold oddity. Fires don’t remain stable as
they are moved, but are sensitive to the motion of what carries them.
Furthermore, even when a fire remains in place, flames dart and jump. They
hardly stay tame and docile. The fire on the mizbeach, however, remained
still and in place. It lay in wait, like a crouching lion. Only because of
this could it be covered by the copper pot. Had it behaved like other fires,
covering it with an implement would not have been effective. Had it shown
the properties of ordinary flames, containing its energy would not have
worked. After a while, it would have burst out from under the cover.
The fire is not always described the way it is here depicted. According to
the gemara, 2 during the second Temple period, the altar-fire
behaved like a crouching dog, rather than a lion. The difference between
them is readily understood. A crouching lion is poised to unleash far
greater energy and displays far more strength than a crouching dog. The fire
manifested the supernal kedushah that attached itself to its place of
residence here on earth. That attachment was far weaker during the time of
the second beis hamikdosh. The fire is therefore depicted as down-graded
from lion to dog.
This phenomenon determined the respective fates of the two batei mikdosh.
Because the kedushah of the first attached itself with greater strength, it
took nothing short of the confluence of the three cardinal sins of the Torah
to dislodge it. The first Temple, then, was destroyed only when Klal Yisrael
sullied itself with immorality, murder and idolatry. It only took groundless
enmity, however, to raze the second Temple. Because kedushah was not
anchored as well in it, lesser crimes could destroy it.
Within this contrast between the two batei mikdosh lies another concept, one
of profound depth. The altar-fire of the first mikdosh crouched like a lion
because it (or its altar) was called Ariel3– Hashem’s lion. The
fire took on aspects of the place it rested.
The leonine qualities of the first mikdosh owe to Avraham Avinu, in whose
merit that mikdosh came into being. Each of the avos revealed and mastered
some characteristic of G-d’s so perfectly, that he bound it to our earthly
existence. Avraham’s midah was chesed, which is the most basic and
influential of the different midos through which we know Hashem. All other
midos derive from it; it can be viewed as the powerhouse of midos – like a
lion. Its prominence is reflected in its position in the Merkavah-vision of
Yechezkel4- squarely on the right, which implies dominance and
Chesed, though, however important, is not the only way in which Hashem is
manifest, and in which we come to know Him. Contrasting to chesed – and
really deriving from it, – is din/ judgment, which is the midah of Yitzchok.
The second mikdosh stood in the merit of Yitzchok, and his binding of
Hashem’s din to the world.
The function of din is to limit, to restrain – whether the display of
Hashem’s chesed that might be so overpowering as to smother, or the actions
of Man that might be harmful if he allowed himself too much free rein..
Because din limits the manifestation of Hashem’s chesed – the midah that is
closest to His essence, it leaves room for further occluding the presence of
G-d. Where Hashem’s presence is hidden, there is room to ignore Him, to deny
Him, to sin. Thus, all that is wrong and evil derive in a sense from din.
For this reason din is called the “left,” or opposite side to chesed on the
right, or primary side. From this other, alternative side to the pure
manifestation of Hashem’s chesed come all kinds of incomplete and flawed
items. Tum’ah, which is a blocking of kedushah and an environment for its
opposite to thrive, is thus associated with the left, the second side.
The second beis hamikdosh was powered by the accomplishment of Yitzchok in
navigating a world of restraint and limitation through law. Yitzchok could
live up to the most demanding expectations of that law, even when it meant
offering his own neck to the knife at the Akeidah. The kedushah he brought
to the world was more subdued than that introduced by Avraham. Its fire was
like a dog, rather than a lion. To Chazal, a dog was a good representation
of tum’ah. The beis hamikdosh, of course, was not a source of tum’ah but the
opposite. Yet the kedushah secured in the second Temple was blocked and
limited relative to that of the first, like tum’ah preventing kedushah from
Din means equality. All are equal under the law; law allows people to
predict equal outcomes in comparable situations. For this reason, Yitzchok
described the mikdosh as a field, an expanse that is plane and smooth,
knowing no irregularities and inequalities. Avraham’s place of avodah was a
mountain, because his midah was decidedly not one of the smooth
predictability of legal expectation. Avraham’s midah was to exceed that
expectation through acts of kindness, to rise above the straight and narrow.
The third beis hamikdosh will stand in the zechus of Yaakov, whose midah
combines chesed and din, creating a platform more accessible to more people.
This hybridization of the midos of Avraham and Yitzchok will produce a
mikdosh more long-lived than its predecessors.
In pure, ethereal things, there is light. In coarse, material things the
light cannot penetrate. The first beis hamikdosh was relatively free of the
limitations of the material. Therefore, spiritual light was in abundance. It
had the Urim (which comes from the word ohr/ light) v’Tumim. It had the Aron
(also related to the word ohr), and the Shechinah and the korban-consuming
fire and the luchos. The second beis hamikdosh lacked all of them.
And Yitzchok, of course, the symbol of din, was blind.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 4:13; Netzach Yisrael chap. 52, 55
2. Yoma 21B
3. Yeshaya 29:1-2; Yechezkel 43:15
4. Yechezkel 1:10