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The Holy Temple is rebuilt, but is not the same with the Ark of the Covenant missing.
The rebuilding of the Temple, which had began under Cyrus when the Persians first took over the Babylonian empire, and which was then interrupted for 18 years, resumed with blessing of Darius II, the Persian king whom we believe to be the son of Esther.
The work is completed in 350 BCE and the Temple is re-dedicated. But it is not the same.
The intense spiritually of the First Temple cannot be compared to the Second. The constant open miracles are gone. Prophecy will also disappear during the early years of the second Temple. The Ark of the Covenant is gone ― and although there is a Holy of Holies, it stands empty.
The Ark ― this special gold-lined cedar chest which had contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments ― was the place where the Shechina, the Presence of God, descended from heaven between the outstretched wings of the two golden cherubs. What happened to it? The Talmud talks about it and relates two opinions.(1) One opinion says the Babylonians took it into captivity. The other opinion says that it was hidden by King Josiah who had anticipated the impending invasion and destruction.
There's a well-known story told in the Talmud of a cohen, a priest, who finds a loose stone on the Temple Mount and realizes that's where the Ark is hidden. On the way to tell others about it, he dies.(2) The point of the story is that the Ark is not meant to be found. Not yet.
Ezra and Nechemiah
The Jews who rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem were faced with many challenges and difficulties. Strong leadership would be essential for them to be able to both rebuilt the Temple and re-establish a strong community.
Two individuals played a critical role in the re-establishment of the Jewish community in Israel. One was Ezra.
A scribe and scholar and a Jewish community leader in Persia, Ezra, a cohen, hears that the Jewish community in the Holy Land is floundering with neither king nor prophet. So, he takes with him 1,496 well-chosen men with leadership abilities and comes to the rescue.
Ezra is so well thought of in the Talmud that it is written of him that "the Torah could have been given to Israel through Ezra, if not that Moses preceded him" (Sanhedrin 21b).
This high praise goes to Ezra for the spiritual rebuilding of the Jewish people and his efforts to reinstate Torah law in the land.
Among his most dramatic reforms is his war against assimilation and inter-marriage.
Indeed, the Book of Ezra condemns all the men living in Israel who had married non-Jewish wives and gives their names ― all 112 of them. (Ezra 10:18-44.)
You might ask: Why the big deal? After all, only 112 men strayed. Today, millions of Jews are intermarrying ― the intermarriage rate in America over 50%. The difference is that 2,500 years ago, even one Jew intermarrying was an outrage. Now society accepts it as normal. So-called "progressive" congregations in America are even shopping for rabbis who will officiate at mixed marriages ― to lend legitimacy to something the Bible repeatedly condemns, and which spells the death of the Jewish people.
Through Ezra's efforts, these mixed marriages are dissolved. All the people are then gathered in Jerusalem ― men and women from all over the country ― and the Torah is read out loud to all. At the end, all present pledge not to intermarry, uphold the Torah and strengthen themselves spiritually.(3)
The other major personality of this period is Nechemiah, a leader of the Jewish community of Babylon and an official of the Emperor Darius II. While Ezra had succeeded in spiritually strengthening the returnees, Jerusalem remained un-walled and unprotected. Thirteen years after the arrival of Ezra, Nechemiah arrives, having been appointed governor by Darius. After surveying Jerusalem he announces: "Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be an object of scorn." (Nechemiah 2:17). Despite the efforts of the surrounding peoples to hinder its construction, the wall is completed. Spiritually and physically fortified, Jerusalem will prosper and its population will expand.
Despite Ezra's efforts (and those of the other leaders) the Temple is spiritually a shadow of its former self.
The returnees from Babylon are not in a position to rebuild the Temple as splendid as Solomon's. Eventually (circa 30 BCE) it will be rebuilt again by Herod the Great, and made into a spectacular structure, but even though it is going to be physically beautiful, it will be spiritually empty when compared with the First Temple. And even though there are going to be High Priests, the institution will become corrupt.
According to the Talmud, during the First Temple period of about 410 years, there were only 18 High Priests. During the Second Temple period of 420 years, there were more than 300 High Priests! We know (from the Talmud, Yoma 9a) that Yochanan was High Priest for 80 years, Shimon was High Priest for 40 years, and Yishmael ben Pabi was High Priest for 10 years. That means in the remaining 290 years there were at least 300 priests ― one every year or so. What accounts for that?
The Talmud tells us that the Holy of Holies was forbidden ground, except for Yom Kippur. On that one day only, the High Priests entered to perform special rites before God. But if he himself was not spiritually pure and unable to focus, he would not be able to stand the intense encounter with God and would die on the spot. We know that during the Second Temple Period a rope had to be tied to the High Priest, so that in case he died, he could be pulled out of the Holy of Holies.
Because the whole High Priesthood was a corrupted institution for most of the Second Temple period, the High Priests died or were replaced every year. (4) And yet people clamored for the job, which went to the highest bidder. So the question has to be asked: If he was going to die on Yom Kippur, who would want the position? One possible answer is that many of the candidates strongly believed that their incorrect Temple service was actually the correct way to do it.(5) That is how bad things go
Loss of Prophecy
Why did things get so bad?
Largely because prophecy disappeared from the land and strong central authority was largely lacking.
When the prophets were around and leadership was strong, heresy was much more difficult. A prophet talked to God and he'd straighten a heretic right out. No one could deny basic tenets of Judaism in the face of prophecy and open miracles. In the period of the Judges and the First Temple an individual could always make a free-will decision to reject Judaism, worship idols and even use the impure spirituality of idolatry to perform magic and divination, but the presence of prophets and strong leadership made it virtually impossible to undermine the philosophy and practices of Judaism.
But when prophecy disappeared and central authority was weakened, it became easier for people to stray and for various holy institutions (like the High Priesthood) to become corrupt.
Prophecy disappeared because the Jewish people had damaged their relationship with God. They were spiritually weaker and could not do the same intense spiritual work required to achieve prophecy(6). To be a prophet you have to perfect yourself spiritually, you have to have total self control. It's the ultimate Jewish expression of who being a great man is. The sages say, "Who is a great man? He who conquers his inclination (controls himself)." [Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1]
Prophecy in the Jewish understanding is not just the ability to predict the future. It is a state of transcendence of the physical world. It means the prophet has entered such a high plane of understanding that he or she is able to communicate with the Infinite and access information and understanding inaccessible to a normal person.
Moses was the ultimate prophet ― that is he reached the highest level of prophecy that is humanly possible. But there were many others ― hundreds of thousands, according to the Talmud ― who achieved lesser levels and were prophets. In the story of Saul, we talked about how the Jewish people consulted the prophets on everything, including lost objects. But that phenomenon disappears during the early years of the second Temple. "After the later prophets, Haggai, Zecharia, and Malachi, had died, the prophetic spirit disappeared from the Jewish people..." (Yoma 9b)(7)
If anyone is interested in how to become a prophet there is an instruction book available. It called "Path of the Just" and it was written in the 18th century by the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, also known as the Ramchal. This is a guidebook on how to get complete control of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually so you can transcend this world and become a prophet. In his book, The Way of God, Rabbi Luzzatto clearly defines the concept of prophecy:
The main concept of true prophecy is therefore that a living person achieves such an attachment and bond with God. This in itself is certainly a very high degree of perfection. Besides this, however, it is often accompanied by certain information and enlightenment. Through prophecy one can gain knowledge of many lofty truths among God's hidden mysteries. These things are perceived very clearly... Part of a prophet's career may include being sent on a mission by God(8).
But even if you master that book, you will not be a prophet. Why not? Because the gates of prophecy are closed to us. Why? Because prophecy is only possible if the rest of the Jewish people are also spiritually elevated.
As an individual you can reach a tremendously high level but you can only reach so high. To get all the way to the top and break through the threshold, you've got to "stand on the shoulders" of the Jewish people because there has to be a minimum level of spirituality of the entire nation upon which to rest yourself so that you can reach the level of prophecy. If the nation drops below that level, that threshold, it doesn't matter how much you stand on your tippy-toes and reach up, you're not going to succeed. And during the Second Temple period, we're going to see the Jewish people dropping below a certain threshold of spirituality which they're never going to attain again during the entire period.
As we saw from the Purim story-by the time we arrive at the period of the Second Temple, God's presence is hidden, the Ark of the Covenant is hidden as is prophecy.
The Talmud says there were definitely individuals living at this time, who, had they lived earlier, would most certainly have been prophets. "There is one among you who deserves that the Shechina (Divine Presence) should rest on him as it did on Moses, but his generation is not deserving." (Sanhedrin 11a) But the door to prophecy had been slammed in the face of the Jewish people. And we are told that it will not be opened again until the Messianic Era.
Following the destruction of the First Temple when it became apparent that the Jewish people were growing weaker spiritually, a group of wise leaders came together ― expanding the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, from 70 to 120 members ― with a special aim of preserving and strengthening Judaism in the Diaspora and afterward. They were the Men of the Great Assembly.
1) See Talmud ― Yoma 52b-53b.
2) Talmud ― Yoma 53b
3) Nechemia 10:30-31.
4) See Talmud ― Yoma 9a.
5) See: Talmud ― Yoma 19b-for an account of Sadducee High Priest who dies due to his improper actions while in the Holy of Holies.
6) See: Rashi on Shir HaShirim 6:5.
7) See also: Talmud ― Sanhedrin 11a
8) Luzzatto, Derech Hashem III:3:4 & III:4:6; see also Talmud ― Nedarim.