Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot‘ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As the Israelites stand rooted at Sinai, yet another major foundation of their eternal heritage is divinely laid. God turns to Moshe and commands, “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell among them.”
The construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites during their desert travels, is thus launched. This sanctuary serves as the precursor to the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, eventually erected in Jerusalem.
One can scarcely imagine Judaism without the concept of the Beit Hamikdash. No single symbol has been more fundamental to the Jewish people than the Temple, representing their eternal connection to God.
Just as the Mishkan serves as the focal point of the Israelite encampment during its desert wanderings, so too, the first and second Batei Mikdash each become the central feature of the corresponding Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel. Twice destroyed, the Temple lives on in the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the world who pray daily for its rebuilding.
Why does God command that the Mishkan be built in the first place?
Judaism introduces to the world the concept of a unified, omnipresent God Who can be related to and worshiped at any time and in any place. If God is omnipresent, why then does He require a “central address”? Are we not limiting a limitless God by creating a Temple for His worship? To quote the objections of the Abravanel: “Why would God command the creation of the Sanctuary, as if He were defined in corporeal terms and bounded by specific location? This is the opposite of the truth!”
A multitude of approaches, some of them revolutionary, are suggested by the classical scholars as they struggle to unravel the mysteries surrounding one of Judaism’s most enduring and central symbols. Their suggestions can be divided into two contrasting global positions.
One position is that the creation of the Mishkan is a divinely ordained response to the sin of the egel hazahav (the golden calf). This astounding possibility is first suggested in the Midrash and later adopted by numerous authorities, including Rashi.
The Torah, however, introduces the Mishkan a full two and a half parshiot before the narrative of the golden calf. The Midrashic approach to the sanctuary, therefore, requires the reordering of the text through the application of the principle Ein mukdam u’me’uchar ba’Torah – the Torah text does not necessarily follow chronological order (see Yitro 1, Approaches A). The Midrash thus suggests that, textual flow of the Torah notwithstanding, God did not command the construction of the Mishkan until after the sin of the golden calf.
Why do the rabbis struggle so mightily to place the origin of the Mishkan after the sin of the golden calf ? Because, it would seem, this chronological reordering allows for new light to be thrown on the complex symbolism of the Temple.
Through the eyes of the Midrashic scholars, the Mishkan is not an integral part of God’s original plan for His newly formed nation, but rather a response to their weakness and failing. God has no need for the sanctuary and, in fact, does not initially include it as a component in His relationship with the Israelites. Once the people demonstrate their inability to relate to Him directly, however, God decrees the creation of the Mishkan as an act of remediation.
Some within the Midrash view the creation of the Sanctuary as a healing gesture on the part of God towards the nation. The people find themselves, as a result of the chet ha’egel (sin of the [golden] calf), hopelessly distanced from their Creator. God, therefore, reaches across the chasm to show them a way back.
Other Midrashic sources consider the Sanctuary public testimony to the world of the enduring connection between God and His people, a connection that survives the tragedy of the golden calf.
Most foundational, however, is the approach, based on the Midrashic chronology, which interprets the creation of the Mishkan as a divinely designed response, calculated to counteract the root causes of the chet ha’egel. At the core of this seminal sin lies the nation’s inability to worship God directly without the benefit of intervening tangible symbols. This inability drives the Israelites, upon Moshe’s perceived disappearance, to create the golden calf as a proposed intermediary between themselves and God. Recognizing the people’s need for physical symbols, God, therefore, decrees the creation of the Mishkan and all of its associated rituals and utensils. The fundamental concept of the Beit Hamikdash thus originally emerges as a concession to the Israelites’ limitations.
At this point, we must digress for a moment to consider an overarching issue raised by this Midrashic approach to the Mishkan.
How are we to understand the concept of trial and error in association with God’s will and actions? Mortal man is often forced to resort to “Plan B” when “Plan A” fails. An infallible God, however, should not encounter such difficulty. God knows in advance that the Israelites will sin through the golden calf. Why not, then, short-circuit the process and provide the nation with the symbolism it needs by issuing the commandments concerning the Sanctuary from the outset?
As we have noted before (see Bereishit, Noach 1, Approaches A), trial and error does not exist on God’s part but on man’s. God creates a world based upon free will, and the existence of free will is predicated on the possibility of human failure. In this case, God knows from the very beginning the Israelites will sin, but He does not interfere. Instead, He retreats to allow them room to succeed or fail on their own.
God, in addition, wants the people to learn from their own failure. Had God initially commanded the erection of the sanctuary, the Midrash contends, the Israelites would never have discovered the nature of their own limitations. Like a child, the infant nation must be allowed to stumble and fall, if only to learn to rise again.
One other troubling issue, however, must be raised concerning the Midrashic approach to the Mishkan.
If, as we have suggested, the sin of the golden calf was caused by the nation’s inability to relate to God without the benefit of a physical intermediary, isn’t the proposed “cure” a perpetuation of the problem? God simply seems to substitute the symbolism of the Sanctuary for the symbolism of the golden calf. In what way is this beneficial? Shouldn’t God, instead, train the nation towards the fact that such symbols are unnecessary – that man is capable of establishing a direct relationship with the divine?
On a basic level, we might simply answer that, in contrast to the golden calf, the Sanctuary and its rituals are divinely ordained. Through difficult experience at Sinai, the nation is taught that symbolic worship is allowed in Judaism when, and only when, the symbols involved flow from God’s command.
In a deeper sense, however, the Sanctuary is not a replacement for the golden calf at all but a true antidote for its root causes. Through the creation of the golden calf, the Israelites attempt to establish distance between themselves and their Creator. Frightened by the perceived loss of Moshe and firmly convinced of their inability to relate to the divine directly without a go-between, the nation erects the golden calf to act as an intermediary between themselves and God (see Ki Tissa 2, Approaches B). In contrast, as will become clear in the next two studies (see Teruma 2, 3), the Mishkan represents man’s ability to draw close to God. Properly understood, each and every detail of the Sanctuary and its associated rituals and utensils carries the message of God’s accessibility to man. In a brilliant stroke, God not only responds to the chet ha’egel but prominently weaves the corrective to that failing into the very fabric of Jewish tradition.
In spite of the attractiveness of the Midrashic approach as a rationale for the creation of the Sanctuary, numerous other scholars, such as the Ramban, demur.
Unwilling to accept the notion that the central concept of the Beit Hamikdash could possibly have emerged after the fact, as a concession to the weakness of the Israelites, these authorities maintain that God intended all along to create a central location for his worship.
In the words of Nehama Leibowitz, these scholars
reject the idea that the Sanctuary was in any way an afterthought, a cure for their [the Israelites’] sickness, atonement for sin, or compromise between the idea of spirituality and the reality of man’s material conceptions, demanding a form of worship limited to a definite space-time dimension. On the contrary, the institution of the Sanctuary was there from the beginning, a deliberate act of divine grace and thoughtfulness designed to strengthen the immanence of His presence [my italics].
The Ramban and his colleagues maintain that the Mishkan and, therefore, the entire concept of a Beit Hamikdash are much too significant not to have been part of God’s initial plan for His people. Far from being the source of the Mishkan, the sin of the golden calf actually threatens its creation. Only God’s forgiveness for that sin reinstates His full relationship with the Israelites and enables the Sanctuary to be built.
Another benefit, of course, accrues to this approach.
The chronology of events at Mount Sinai unfolds exactly as recorded in the text. The commandments concerning the erection of the Mishkan are divinely transmitted to Moshe prior to the chet ha’egel. After that tragic event, God conveys His willingness to forgive and to reestablish His relationship with the nation. Moshe consequently perceives, of his own accord,that the previously given directives associated with the Sanctuary still apply. He therefore proceeds to share them with the nation.
The Ramban, among others, thus remains consistent in his general reluctance to uproot the sequence of events as they are recorded in the text. “Why,” he asks, in an attack on Rashi concerning this issue, “should we overturn the words of the living God?” Unless the text itself indicates otherwise, maintains the Ramban, events in the Torah actually unfold in the order in which they are recorded.
Those scholars who view the Mishkan as part of God’s original blueprint for His chosen people also maintain that the Sanctuary is in no way meant to be perceived as an intermediary between the Israelites and their God. Man’s ability to relate to his Creator directly is, after all, a hallmark of Jewish faith. The Mishkan, its symbols and its rituals are, instead, tools, carefully devised to assist the Israelites in the enterprise of seeking the divine.
Various theories are offered by the commentaries as to exactly how the Sanctuary achieves this goal.
Some, such as the Ba’al Hachinuch, author of the Sefer Hachinuch, suggest that the Mishkan provides the Israelites with the setting in which they can regularly perform personally beneficial acts of prayer and sacrifice. Such repeated action, says the Ba’al Hachinuch, makes a positive impact upon each supplicant, serving to purify his thoughts and refine his character.
Others focus on the minute details of the rituals and utensils associated with the Sanctuary. Each of the many details recorded in the Torah, they suggest, carries its own specific lessons concerning the relationship between God and man.
As will become even clearer over the next studies, neither the Mishkan nor the Beit Hamikdash, no matter their origin, is “God’s home.” Each of these central institutions is, instead, divinely designed to teach how we can successfully “bring God home to us.”