The purpose of the Mishkan


Our parasha, Terumah, contains the commandment to construct a holy place for the Master of the Universe, in this instance, the Mishkan (portable desert sanctuary): “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” (Shemot 25:8). The Rambam (Maimonides) formulated this mitzvah as follows:

“The 20th mitzvah that we are commanded is to build a House of Avodah (the Temple Service). In it we offer sacrifices, burn the eternal flame, offer our prayers, and congregate for the festivals each year. … The source of this mitzvah is G-d’s statement (exalted be He), ‘Make a Sanctuary for Me’.” (Sefer HaMitzvot)

Maimonides followed this approach, as well, in his Mishneh Torah: “It is a positive commandment to construct a House for G-d, prepared for sacrifices to be offered within … as the text states: ‘And you shall make Me a sanctuary’.” (Hilchot Beit Habechirah I:1) In light of these two sources, it is evident that Maimonides viewed this mitzvah in practical and utilitarian terms; namely, to provide a designated location wherein the Avodah could properly take place.

In an introduction to our parasha in his Commentary on the Torah, the Ramban (Nachmanides) took a decidedly different tact and presented us with a spiritual rationale for constructing the Mishkan. In his view, the Revelation at Mount Sinai transformed us into a holy nation that was uniquely dedicated to Hashem’s service, and therefore, “it was fitting and proper that there should be a sanctuary among them [the Jewish people] wherein Hashem’s Divine Presence could dwell.”

Little wonder, then, that according to the Ramban’s understanding of the Torah’s chronology, the first post-Sinai commandment was the construction of the Mishkan. Its objective was to engender the continuation of the dialogical encounter between Hashem and Moshe that took place at Sinai. Hence, the Ramban explicitly stated, “The secret understanding (sod) of the Mishkan was to enable the Glory [of G-d] that had dwelt upon Mount Sinai to dwell therein in a hidden manner.” Moreover, “within the Mishkan, that would forever be with the Jewish people, would be found the Glory [of G-d] that had appeared to them on Har Sinai.” Thus, for the Ramban, we are met with the following formula: Mishkan = Mount Sinai = Continuous Presence of Hashem.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel), like the Ramban, adopted a far more spiritual approach than that of the Rambam. As we have noted, the Ramban viewed the Mishkan as a transportable Mount Sinai wherein Hashem’s presence continued to ever be manifest. For the Malbim, however, continuous mystical encounter was the essence of the Mishkan, and the Beit Hamikdash that would follow thereafter:

“And this was the intention [the rationale] inherent in the construction of the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash that was built afterwards in Jerusalem — in the city where it was joined in permanent union. For there, all of the members of the Jewish people united together as if they were one being that contained within its [collective] soul all of the enlightening splendor and spirituality found within the G-dly illuminations that bring light to the entire world in His glory.”

At this juncture, the Malbim describes the longing of our people to reunite with Hashem in His holy precincts:

“And unto this place, [the entire nation] would turn and flock from all of the dispersed places of the world, and all of their prayers and actions would be infused with holiness as they turned their faces toward [this holy place]. As our Sages taught us in the Talmud, “If one finds himself standing in the East [and he wishes to pray], he must turn toward the West [that will then be the direction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple]. If one finds himself standing in the West [and he wishes to pray,] he must turn toward the East [that will then be the direction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple]…we thereby find that the entire Jewish people will focus their hearts and minds upon one [manifestly sacred] place.” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 30a)

In sum, for the Malbim, the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash offered the ultimate venue for the Jewish people to encounter Hashem in mystical union. Therefore, even the makom haMikdash (the location of the Beit Hamikdash) remains the place unto this day “[where] the entire Jewish people focus their hearts and minds.”

Closer to our own time, my rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal, offered a different rationale for the mitzvah of the Mishkan than those presented by the Rambam, the Ramban and the Malbim. The Rav explained that the Holy One blessed be He “created the world to reside in it, rather than to reside in transcendence.” If this is the case, why, then, did He alter His mode of interacting with the world and mankind? In other words, why did He become the Transcendent One and abandon His persona of the Immanent One? The Rav opined that this change occurred when Adam withdrew from communicating with Hashem after failing to keep his one and only commandment:

“But in the wake of the original sin by Adam and Eve, He [G-d] retreated. “And they heard the voice of the L-rd G-d going in the garden to the direction of the sun, and the man and his wife hid from before the L-rd God in the midst of the trees of the garden.” (Bereishit 3:8) These “footsteps” were those of G-d leaving the garden and departing into infinity. Had they not sinned, G-d would always have been close. As a result of Adam’s hiding and fear of communicating with G-d in the wake of his sin, G-d removed His Divine Presence. (Quoted in Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Sefer Shemos, with Commentary Based Upon the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, editor)

Given the Rav’s analysis, we are now in a much better position to understand exactly why Hashem commanded us, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary.” In a word, G-d wanted to reestablish the pattern of closeness that He had shared with mankind prior to the sin of Adam and Eve when they ate of the pri eitz hada’at (Tree of Knowledge). As the Rav stated: “The purpose of the tabernacle was to restore the relationship between man and G-d. [As the Torah writes:] ‘And I will dwell in their midst’.”

No matter which rationale for the construction of the Mishkan speaks to you, let us continue to hope and pray that, with the Almighty’s help and bountiful mercy, the moment will come soon and in our days when the Mashiach will arrive and “urge all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance … build the Temple in its place, and gather the dispersed of Israel. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 11:4)

V’chane yihi ratzon.