Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot‘ copublished by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As previously indicated, God initiates the creation of the Mishkan (the portable Sanctuary in the desert) with the seemingly straightforward directive, “And they shall create for me a mikdash (a holy place), and I will dwell within them.”
Two linguistic issues emerge upon careful review of the commandment concerning the Mishkan.
Why does God state, “and I will dwell within them”? Parallel structure would have mandated that the sentence read: “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell within it.”
Why does the Torah use the generic term mikdash (holy place) in this commandment? This is the only occasion in the text where the portable desert Sanctuary is not referred to by its specific name: Mishkan.
In light of our previous discussion concerning the Mishkan, the apparent non-parallel structure of this commandment makes abundant sense. The Torah does not state “and I will dwell within it,” because God does not dwell in the Mishkan nor will He dwell later in the Beit Hamikdash.
Centuries later, in his historic address on the occasion of the First Temple’s dedication in Jerusalem, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) makes this point clear:
Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built? Turn, therefore, to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication… that Your eyes will be open towards this house night and day…. And You will listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your nation Israel that they shall pray towards this place…
Shlomo’s sentiments are thus foreshadowed in the Torah text with the very first introduction of the Mishkan, the precursor of both Temples. The Torah states, “and I will dwell within them,” to stress that the purpose of the Sanctuary is to bring God into the lives of the people. Whether a sign of God’s reconciliation with the nation after the sin of the golden calf or a corrective for that sin or an originally mandated symbol of continued divine presence, the Sanctuary serves to represent God’s constant accessibility to man.
Some commentaries, including the Malbim, go a step further in their interpretation of the phrase “and I will dwell within them.” The Israelites are commanded, they say, to build not only a physical sanctuary in the midst of the camp, but an internal spiritual sanctuary within each of their souls. They are thus instructed to create a place for God to “dwell within them” – in the hearts of the individual Israelites and their descendents.
Concerning the text’s use of the generic term mikdash, in place of the more specific Mishkan, a number of scholars maintain that the chosen terminology reflects the continuing character of the obligation. The nation is commanded from the outset to erect a mikdash (a holy place), not only at this point in their history, but also when they successfully establish a presence in their homeland.
The Rambam codifies this eternal mitzva as follows: “It is a positive commandment to build a ‘House for the Lord’…as it states, ‘And they shall make for Me a holy place…’ ”
The Ohr Hachaim derives a beautiful additional lesson from the text’s use of the word mikdash.
The sequence within the sentence “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell within them,” he claims, is counterintuitive. One would expect the Sanctuary to become “holy” only after the investiture of God’s presence. By referring to the Sanctuary immediately as a mikdash, a holy place, the Torah conveys that the Temple is holy from the moment that the Israelites create it – even before God fulfills His commitment to “dwell” within the nation.
The commandment to build the Temple thus reconfirms the fundamental truth repeated over and over again, in different ways, during the critical period of our nation’s birth: Sanctity is created in this world when man acts in accordance with God’s will. Man, as God’s partner, invests the Sanctuary with holiness.
Points to Ponder
Two points for consideration concerning the term mikdash:
1. If the commandment to build the mikdash is ongoing, are we not obligated to construct the Third Temple in Israel in our day? While numerous positions concerning this issue are staked out by the halachists, the approach presented by the Sefer Hachinuch is particularly intriguing.
The Ba’al Hachinuch explains that the parameters of the obligation to build a “holy place” shift dramatically with the building of the first permanent Temple in Jerusalem (tenth century bce). From that time on, the commandment is effective only when the majority of the Jewish nation is living in the Land of Israel.
An immediate challenge to the Ba’al Hachinuch’s position, however, emerges from a clear historical reality. The Second Temple was erected at the end of the Babylonian exile, when the vast majority of “exiles” tragically opted to forgo a return to Zion and remain in Babylon. Why, then, was the Second Temple built by the minority who did return?
Rabbi Yehoshua of Kotno defends the Ba’al Hachinuch with a bold contention: the Jews of Babylon remained in “exile” of their own choice. They therefore effectively ceded their rights to the Temple and could no longer, through their absence, prevent its rebuilding.
The Ba’al Hachinuch’s basic contention and Rabbi Yehoshua’s further observation highlight the historic opportunities and challenges of our day. As the balance of Jewish life inexorably shifts from the diaspora to the State of Israel, we are rapidly approaching the point when the majority of Jews will be living in their homeland. Will we be biblically obligated at that point, political exigencies aside, to commence rebuilding the Temple?
Even further, an argument might be made that the “tipping point” concerning the Temple has already been reached. The majority of diaspora Jews today, like the Babylonian Jews of the Second Temple period, live in an “exile of choice” with the opportunity of return to the Land of Israel fully available. Have those of us in the diaspora lost our “rights” to the Temple? If so, should the Beit Hamikdash be built today, even in our absence?
The question remains academic given the political realities as well as other philosophical/halachic concerns. The issues raised, however, certainly should give us pause as we consider the momentous times in which we live. For the first time in nearly two thousand years we approach the point when, after centuries of wandering, a majority of the Jewish nation will be “home.” What halachic, philosophical and psychological changes should occur within our nation’s psyche as a result of this new reality? How are we meant to mark our momentous transformation from a “people of exile” to a “people of return”?
And what of those of us who choose not to participate fully in this new historic national adventure – we, who, yet today, live our lives outside of the Land of Israel?
We are quick to criticize, in retrospect, the Babylonian exiles who failed to return to Zion. How, we must honestly wonder, will history judge us?
Our excuses are many – some, perhaps, more valid then others. But the question must be asked: what “rights” do we lose when we voluntarily choose not to return home?
2. A refrain often sounded in today’s Jewish community bemoans the lack of “spirituality” in traditional practice and worship. Pulpit rabbis regularly hear, “Rabbi, I fail to be ‘moved’ by the tefilla (prayer service)… The daily ritual leaves me empty.”
Responding to the challenge, numerous religious schools, synagogues and communal institutions have instituted studies and programs designed towards making age-old ritual personally relevant to their constituents. Federations have commissioned studies with an eye towards “reinventing the synagogue”; synagogues, themselves, have initiated programs, from prayer services featuring the poignant tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to innovative adult education classes; schools regularly design and implement new curricula for the teaching of prayer and ritual.
On an individual level, frustrated by the perceived lack of meaning in “ordinary” Jewish practice, many Jews find their search leading to more esoteric areas of their tradition. Kabbalists and mystics – some of them authentic and some less so – become frequent visitors to “modern Orthodox communities,” with claims of easy access to sacred realms. Sophisticated members of the Jewish community treasure questionable symbols – such as the “red bendlach” (red threads worn on the wrist purportedly to ward off the “evil eye,” often received from beggars at the Western Wall) – with greater intensity than they do normative Jewish rituals.
While communal creativity (within halachic boundaries) is certainly laudable, and authentic spiritual search is essential to Jewish tradition, Judaism offers no shortcuts to religious meaning. Spiritual “quick fixes” are alien to our tradition. In a world marked by instant gratification, Judaism preaches that spirituality is ultimately found only as a result of hard, continuing work.
An individual, for example, who expects to be spontaneously and passively “moved” by weekly synagogue prayer, without the investment of true effort into that prayer, is doomed to disappointment. Tefilla is neither theater nor spectator sport. Prayer becomes meaningful only as a result of study of text, honest personal introspection, wrenching self-assessment and a continuing evaluation of our relationship with God.
As the Mishna proclaims: “One should not stand to pray without full and serious intent. The righteous of old would deliberate a full hour before beginning to pray, in order to direct their hearts towards the Almighty.”
Consider, in contrast, the hurried, preoccupied nature of so much of our tefilla today.
Like tefilla, all the daily rites and rituals of Judaism are filled with significance readily available to those motivated, committed and industrious enough to explore the familiar. Within and through this regular ongoing observance, we are meant to find true religious meaning in our lives.
Centuries ago, God launched the central symbol of Jewish worship with the commandment “And they shall make for Me a holy place…” Only we, as God’s partners, generate holiness in this world. Only we, through conscientious effort, can create sanctity and attain spirituality in our lives.