The Trouble with Greatness

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Sefer Shemot 25:8)

1. The commandment to create a Bait HaMikdash and its fulfillment

Parshat Terumah is devoted to describing the design of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. Included in the parasha is also a detailed description of the design of the fundamental components of the Mishcan. These components include the aron, kaporet, shulchan, and menorah – the ark, the ark-cover, the table upon which the shew-bread was placed, and the candelabra.

In the above passage, Hashem commands Bnai Yisrael to create the Mishcan and its components as they are described in the parasha. This Mishcan was the focal point of Bnai Yisrael’s encampments during their travels through the wilderness. At each encampment, the people arranged their tents around the Mishcan. The Mishcan was the center of worship in the wilderness. All sacrificial worship took place there. The cloud communicating the presence of Hashem hovered over the Mishcan. When Hashem spoke with Moshe His voice was perceived as emerging from between the cherubs of the kaporet – the ark-cover.

According to Maimonides, the above passage is not only the directive to create the Mishcan. It is also the source for the commandment to build the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple.[1] The first Bait HaMikdash was constructed by King Shlomo upon the Temple Mount in Yerushalayim. This Temple was destroyed. It was replaced by the second Temple created by those who returned from the Babylonian exile. The second Temple was constructed upon the site of its predecessor. This second Bait HaMikdash was also destroyed. It will be replaced by the third Bait HaMikdash. It too will be constructed upon the same site. It will be the final Temple – never to be destroyed or replaced.

This first Bait HaMikdash was constructed many generations after Bnai Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel. This delay was in accordance with the stipulations of the Torah. Maimonides explains that the Bait HaMikdash was only to be constructed after appointment of a king and the destruction of Amalek.[2]

And it came to pass, when the king dwelt in his house, and Hashem had given him rest from all his enemies round about, that the king said unto Natan the prophet: See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of G-d dwells within curtains. (Sefer Shemuel II 7:1-2)

2. King David’s request and Hashem’s reponse

During the reign of King David all of the prerequisites were apparently in place for the construction of the Bait HaMikdash. David ruled as king over the nation. Amalek had been vanquished and Bnai Yisrael lived in security. David concluded that the time had arrived for fulfillment of the mitzvah to build the Bait HaMikdash. He consulted with the prophet Natan. Natan agreed that the time had arrived for building the Temple and advised David to proceed with the project.

Immediately after speaking with David, Natan received a prophecy from Hashem. Hashem told Natan that David will not build the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, this privilege will be given to his son who will succeed him on the throne. In that same prophecy, Hashem instructed Natan to reveal to David that his descendants will rule Bnai Yisrael. The kingship of Bnai Yisrael will never be removed from the House of David.

There are two interesting elements to Natan’s prophecy. First, no reason is provided by Hashem for His refusal to allow David to build the Bait HaMikdash. Second, Hashem’s rejection of David’s request is accompanied with the promise of permanent sovereignty. Each of these elements must be more thoroughly considered. Why was David denied the privilege of fulfilling his vision of building the Bait HaMikdash? Why was this refusal accompanied by an assurance of permanent sovereignty?

And David said to Shlomo: My son, as for me, it was in my heart to build a house unto the name of Hashem my G-d. But the word of Hashem came to me, saying: You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars. You shall not build a house unto My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight. (Sefer Devrai HaYamim I 22:7-8)

3. Shedding blood disqualified David from building the Temple

The Navi’s account to Natan’s prophecy does not provide an explanation for Hashem’s rejection of David. However, Devrai HaYamim includes a description of David’s instructions to his son Shlomo to build the Bait HaMikdash. In David’s instructions he explains that Hashem denied him the privilege of building the Bait HaMikdash because of the enormous amount of blood that he had spilled and the wars he had waged.

The commentators discuss the meaning of David’s explanation. The passages seem to say that David was disqualified from the role of building the Bait HaMikdash because of his role as a conqueror and warrior king. David consolidated Bnai Yisrael’s conquest of the Land of Israel and he brought the people security from attack by their enemies. These accomplishments were a great legacy that he left the nation. However, this legacy also rendered him unfit to build the Bait HaMikdash.

This is difficult to understand. The wars waged by David were just and ordained by the Torah. Why then did his role of obedient servant to Hashem and protector of his people disqualify him from building the Bait HaMikdash?

4. Preserving David’s legacy as protector of the nation

The commentators offer a number of responses. One of the most interesting is provided by Gershonides. He argues that the Bait HaMikdash would be permanently associated with the king who would build it. David was a controversial ruler. He was loved and revered by Bnai Yisrael. However, among the surrounding nations, he was at best feared and at worst reviled. They regarded him as a dangerous enemy and ruthless conqueror.

The first Bait HaMikdash was destined to be destroyed by Bnai Yisrael’s enemies. Its destruction was a terrible tragedy. If this Temple had been associated with David, the tragedy would have been even greater. It would have provided Bnai Yisrael’s enemies the opportunity to claim that its destruction was a final verdict and condemnation of David’s conquests. They would claim that the Temple was David’s most significant legacy. Its destruction indicated that his violence rendered him unworthy of this precious legacy. The legitimacy and justice of the many wars fought by David would have been undermined. Therefore, Hashem refused David permission to build the Bait HaMikdash. Only the universally respected and loved Shlomo was permitted to build the Bait HaMikdash.[3]

5. The preconditions required for building the Temple were not met in David’s time

Malbim offers a simpler explanation. He explains that the Bait HaMikdash was to be built in a time of peace. Malbim argues that during David’s lifetime the requisite level of peace was not secured. David did defeat Bnai Yisrael’s enemies. However, they remained subdued out of fear and intimidation. Shlomo ushered in a period of true peace and harmony. Therefore, he was a more appropriate choice than his father for the role of building the Bait HaMikdash.[4]

And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you lift up your tool upon it, you have profaned it. (Sefer Shemot 20:22)

6. Violence is antithetical to the message of the Bait HaMikdash

One of the most well known explanations is provided by RaDak. He explains that the Bait HaMikdash must be associated with peace. Therefore, regardless of the justice of his campaigns, David’s very association with violence and bloodshed disqualified him from building the Bait HaMikdash.

RaDak supports his explanation with the above passage. The Torah explains that the altar used to offer sacrifices to Hashem should not be constructed of hewn stones. These stones have been manufactured using stone-cutting tools. RaDak and others explain that these tools are made of metal – a material used to create weapons. The use of stone-cutting tools creates an association between the finished stones and violence represented by these tools. The altar is to be associated with peace. Therefore, it cannot be constructed of these hewn stones. RaDak argues that the same consideration disqualified David from building the Bait HaMikdash. Like its altar, the Temple is associated with peace. David, like stone-cutting tools, was associated with violence. Therefore, he was not the appropriate person to build the Bait HaMikdash.[5]

Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Sefer Yeshayahu 56:7)

7. The Bait HaMikdash is for all nations

The above passage suggests a simple explanation for Hashem’s rejection of David and His selection of Shlomo for the role of the Bait HaMikdash’s builder. The prophet Yeshayahu describes a future time in which all of the nations will perceive the Temple as a house of prayer for all people. In this vision, the prophet declares that the mission of the Bait HaMikdash is universal and applies to all humanity.

King David was loved by his own people. However, he was a conqueror of other nations. He was not the best ambassador for the message that Yishayahu is communicating. To the people, of other nations David was feared and perhaps resented. He could not effectively invite the nations of the world to pray at his Temple. Furthermore, if associated with his name, the Bait HaMikdash would continue to evoke resentment among the nations.

Moreover, concerning the stranger that is not of Your people Israel, when he shall come out of a far country for Your name’s sake – for they shall hear of Your great name, and of Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm; when he shall come and pray toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the stranger calls to You; that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as does Your people Israel, and that they may know that Your name is called upon this house which I have built.
(Sefer Melachim I 8:41-43)

8. Shlomo’s message to the nations of the world

Shlomo was an appropriate choice to build the Bait HaMikdash. Unlike David, he was beloved by his own people and respected and revered by the people of other nations. His association with the Bait HaMikdash provided an opportunity to reach out to all people and to invite them to accept this sacred temple as their house of prayer. In the above passages, Shlomo communicates this message of inclusiveness. These passages are taken from Shlomo’s prayers offered at the completion of the building of the Bait HaMikdash. He envisions people from all of the nations coming to the Temple to offer their prayers to Hashem.

9. The promise of the House of David

All of these explanations address the question of why David was disqualified from building the Bait HaMikdash. They also provide a possible explanation for the other element of Natan’s prophecy. In the same prophecy in which Hashem rejected David’s request to build the Bait HaMikdash, Hashem promised David his family’s permanent sovereignty. Why was this promise made in conjunction with Hashem’s rejection of David’s request to build the Temple?

All of the above explanations for Hashem’s denial to David of the privilege of building the Bait HaMikdash have a common theme. Hashem was not punishing David or suggesting a criticism in this denial. David’s life – led righteously – nonetheless, rendered him less than ideal for this task. Perhaps, Hashem was communicating to David that rejection of his request did not reflect a failing in David. David was the appropriate king for his time. He created a great legacy that would continue to impact Bnai Yisrsael for all generations. However, he was not the appropriate king for this specific task – the building the Bait HaMikdash. His very greatness as the protector of Bnai Yisrael disqualified him from this role.

10. The trouble with greatness

There is an important message in this lesson. We tend to judge others harshly for their deficiencies. However, sometimes a deficiency is the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of a person’s greatness. David was not associated with peace. In this sense, he was inferior to his son Shlomo. Shlomo earned the respect of leaders of near and distant nations. They came to meet this remarkable ruler and learn from his wisdom.

David never succeeded in communicating a message of inclusion or universality. However, this was a direct result of his greatness as a warrior and as the protector of the Jewish people. To criticize David for his shortcomings, when compared to Shlomo, is to fail to recognize and appreciate his greatness.

 

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 1:1.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:1-2.
3. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Devrai HaYamim I 22:8.
4. Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Shemuel I 7:5.
5. Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Devrai HaYamim 22:8.