This week’s Torah portion speaks about the temple which the Children of Israel are to build in the place designated by God. Why was the full worship to be limited to just one location?
During their wanderings the people of Israel had already adopted the worship of God under the sacrificial system. The worship was limited to the Mishkan, where Betzalel and Ohaliab had created all the utensils and made a portable building. This moved around with them, but there is no mention of their worshipping in this manner anywhere else.
In Egypt there were local deities as well as the National ones. There were temples associated with these local gods, and this caused fragmentation and disunity. Instead of recognizing one true God they recognized many, and the rivalries and differences exacerbated the splits between different cities. In Ancient Greece and Rome we also see how the focus on different deities – or even the different aspects of different deities – gave rise to divisions. Even in far-flung Britain, the Romans sought to superimpose their deities on the local Celtic gods, for example in Bath where the local water deity Suilis was associated with Minerva.
The Jewish idea differs from this pagan theory by showing that we are all bound by the same laws and should relate to each other in a consistent and unified manner. Worshipping different aspects of God is as forbidden as worshipping different gods. Worshipping in different temples might have lessened the importance of the central location, and would have diminished the cohesion of a country based on one focal point for worship. The great pilgrim festivals and High Holy Days show us that we need a main location for all the pilgrimages and offerings. This was the Temple.
There were times when sacrifices were offered to God in other places – notably on Mount Carmel, by the prophet Elijah. However these were exceptional and in no way detracted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, even when there is no Temple, we face towards the location of the Holy of Holies, in order to remind ourselves of the central stage of Jewish life, that small platform atop a low mountain in the hill country of Judea.