On first glance, much of today’s daf (Sukkah 51b) focusses on the external beauty and splendour of the most exquisite sacred spaces that have been built in Jewish history – beginning, of course, with the Beit HaMikdash. In fact, we are told ‘whoever did not see the Beit HaMikdash when it stood never saw a magnificent structure in their life’, and ‘whoever did not see the great synagogue of Alexandria of Egypt never saw the glory of Israel’.
Clearly the stunning structural features of these two great buildings were world class. It is here where we are told of the marble used in the Beit HaMikdash that appeared like waves of the sea, and it is here where we are informed of the vast size of the great synagogue of Alexandria which included a feature of seventy-one gold chairs – corresponding to the seventy-one members of the great Sanhedrin.
Yet while the Gemara begins its description with a focus on external beauty and splendour, this is not how it concludes. Instead, we are told that the great synagogue of Alexandria was so large that each type of craftsman – goldsmith, coppersmith, weaver – sat separately, such that ‘when a poor man came in there, he would recognize the section of his fellow craftsman and would go there, and from [the conversations he would have with those in that section] that he would obtain a livelihood for himself and his family.’
Similarly, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer explains (see his ‘Shemoneh Esrei’ pp. 202-3), that while ‘Jerusalem in her glory was a model of architectural brilliance and aesthetic perfection…the real beauty of Jerusalem.. was that she beautified her inhabitants and visitors and afforded [physical and] spiritual revitalization.’
Of course, there are certainly those who find themselves uplifted by the beauty and splendour of particular buildings and structures. Yet what I believe we learn from our daf is that while sacred spaces should be pleasant and dignified, true beauty is found in the physical and spiritual revitalization that we experience from the opportunity to worship God, and in the physical and spiritual chizuk that we are able to give to those in their hour of need.