I understand that one of the reasons the Temple was destroyed was a result of the Jews being steeped in idolatry. What I don’t understand is how they could have done that. A people who had such a unique relationship with G‑d from the miraculous redemption from Egypt to all the miracles that occurred in the Temple, how is it that they sought idolatry in the face of G‑d?
This is a very probing question, and certainly apropos for this period of collective mourning over the destruction of both Temples, when we are to contemplate not only the reasons that they were destroyed, but also why the future Temple has not yet been rebuilt.
Recall that even after the Jews experienced the miraculous redemption from Egypt and salvation at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and even after they collectively witnessed G‑d at the Revelation of Sinai, still shortly thereafter they lapsed into an orgiastic celebration of the Golden Calf.
And as you point out, despite a long history of a special relationship with G‑d and actually living in the presence of the Holy Temple, Jews were still enthralled by, and embroiled with, the spirit of idolatry.
Whereas nowadays none of us has the slightest inclination to serve idols despite the fact that G‑d’s presence in our lives is much less obvious. So how are we to make sense of this?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains that shortly after the building of the second Temple, the Sages gathered together to beseech G‑d to nullify the drive for idolatry.
They cried out to G‑d that because of idolatry, the first Temple “was destroyed, the Sanctuary was burnt, the righteous were murdered and the Jews were exiled, and still the drive for idolatry is taunting us. Since You gave it to us for the purpose of gaining reward through it by overcoming it, but we can’t, it would be better that we not have it, or its reward”.
In answer to their prayer, a note crystallized and fell from Heaven upon which was written the Hebrew word “emet”, which means truth, indicating that G‑d gave His seal of approval to their request. At that time, a lion of fire leaped out of the Holy of Holies but before the Sages were able to “cage” it, a hair of its fiery mane got loose into the world.
When they saw what seemed to be the nullification of the drive for idolatry, they decided to beseech G‑d to nullify the drive for sensual immorality. But it’s clear from the continuation of the story that G‑d doesn’t go half-way on such matters and removing the drive behind immorality requires the removal of the drive entirely. This means that the fiery lion, too, was not the drive for idolatry per se, but rather the general drive for spirituality that simultaneously burns and yearns for idols or G‑d.
This explains what the fiery lion was doing in the Holy of Holies which was the universal focal point for prayer and service of G‑d. And when it leaped out, and was secreted away and concealed, not only was the consuming drive for idolatry nullified, but the burning, voracious desire for G‑d was also lost. So if we don’t understand what the draw for idolatry was, it’s because we’re post fiery lion. But by the same token, we don’t really understand what it means to serve G‑d either.
The only remnant of the blazing desire for spirituality is the single hair of the fiery mane that dissipated into the world. It’s for this reason that the power and force of idolatry within and without us has become so diminished. However, unfortunately, for the same reason, our connection to G‑d is correspondingly tenuous. And we’re spiritually “hanging on by a thread” until such time as the Jewish People return to their Land, the righteous are revived, the sanctuary is restored and the Temple is rebuilt.
Then the voracious drive to serve will return to the Holy of Holies, unadulterated by the lures of idolatry, but rather compelling us to leap and bound singularly toward full-hearted service of G‑d.