While reading Martin Jaffee's Early Judaism for Community of God this week, I came across these thoughts on the conceptual symbolism of the temple, perhaps some of the best I've come across:
The temple linked Jews to the world of heaven as well as serving as a visible link to the Jewish national past. Many regarded the temple as the earthly manifestation of an ethereal palace that existed in God's domain...
In addition to its capacity to evoke speculation about its heavenly counterpart, the temple was also viewed as a visual representation of the cosmos itself...
For the most, to see the temple on earth was to come as close as they would to heaven. Precisely because it was perceived to be an earthly version of a heavenly prototype, the temple was a powerful symbol of the unity of all elements of God's cosmic design. Within its boundaries, the heavenly, earthly, and social realms were all joined together into a seamless whole. Israelite priestly tradition tended to imagine the earth's surface as divided between the clean land of Israel and the unclean lands of the nations, the holiness of the land and the commonness of all other space. The ground plan of the Herodian temple mirrored this conception of things. [pp. 175-6]
Speaking of the Holy of Holies, Jaffee notes:
But these objects [the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubim] had been lost by 587 BCE. What remained, according to later rabbinic tradition, was a flat stone called the Foundation Stone. Upon it, some rabbinic sages insisted, the world had been created. Their insistence upon this point highlights the cosmic function of the Holy of Holies itself. The room served as the meeting of heaven and earth, where all the forces of creation were present in their most intense form. At the center of the temple's rings of holiness, therefore, was nothing at all, an emptiness filled with the potential of infinite presence. God's Glory of Presence (Hebrew: shekhinah), that part of his being capable of worldly embodiment, could descend through it from the heavenly throne at any instant. [p. 179]
On the priestly sacrifices:
When the spectacle of the victim's death and physical destruction was complete, the entire community in the temple court acknowledged the priest's success in bringing the power of life anew into the world. The worshippers sent their own adorations of God skyward with the aromatic smoke of the sacrificial victims whose death they had witnessed.
Although the priest did the work, the participatory witness of a communal audience was a crucial part of the temple's ritual life. The presence of witnesses, indeed, transformed the service from a private priestly rite into a public event that served as a tutorial in priestly conceptions of the world. These were made immediately tangible to the non-priestly majority through the powerful media of massive architectural presence and ritual pageantry. Indeed, the experience of the temple, rather than literary formulations of law and theology, were the primary means by which common Israelites would have identified with the biblical description of Israel as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6). [p. 182]
On the Pilgrimage Festivals:
Thus, the calendar of Pilgrimage Festivals enabled the temple to transform the entire Jewish Diaspora into a series of spokes emanating from the center of the temple and its circumference. The rhythms of the sacrificial seasons transformed the temple into a kind of heart. Its beat circulated a stream of Jews throughout the body of Israel in a perpetuation systolic-diastolic rhythm, geared to the cycles of the seasons. [p. 187]
And one more for good measure:
While the priests were sustaining creation through their sacrifices, villagers were intoning the story of the world's creation. In a real sense, then, through the bystanders, the ritual life of the priests extended beyond the temple into the lives of the Judean population. Non-priestly Jews could incorporate the temple, as the center of the world, into their own experience around the temple's actual borders. [p. 188]
Given Jaffee's descriptions, the impact of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE at the hands of the Roman Empire cannot be overstated. At its core it was a devastating blow to the nation of Israel. Not only did cut off what they saw as their lifeline to God, it had a literal and tangible impact on the cosmos.