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”?
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.
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 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.
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. In contrast, 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.
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.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.