House of God or place of penitence

One of the perks of walking around our neighborhood is that we can see the Temple Mount. My wife and I often try to visualize what it will look like when the new Beit HaMikdash will replace the present Moslem shrine. Physically seeing it almost every day makes the yearning and expectation that much more concrete. So, as we reach the halfway point in the Torah’s description of the temporary Temple of the desert years, it’s a good time to stop and discuss our aspirations for this active monument to our faith. 

Like so many issues in Judaism, there is a debate over the purpose of the Mishkan and, later, the Beit HaMikdash. This week’s Torah reading focuses on the sin of the Golden Calf and the subsequent forgiveness granted by God. This dramatic series of events comes after two readings (Teruma, Tetzave) describing the Mishkan, and will be followed by two more readings (VayakhelPekudei) which will review the construction process. So, the great controversy about the purpose of these holy structures takes place this week. 

The lead off commentary is Rashi, who states at the beginning of this week’s parsha: 

There is no chronological order in the events related in the Torah; in fact, the incident of the golden calf happened a considerable time before the command regarding the work of the Mishkan was given. On the seventeenth of Tammuz the Tablets were broken and on Yom Kippur God became reconciled with Israel, and on the next day, the eleventh of Tishrei, they began to bring their donations for the Mishkan which was set up on the first of Nissan. (Shemot 31:18). 

And his famous partner in this dispute is the Ramban, who states in his commentary to Vayikra 8:2:

By way of proper interpretation of the text, Moshe was commanded about the building of the Mishkan prior to the incident of the golden calf, and when the Holy One, blessed be He, became reconciled to him and promised him that He would cause His Divine Glory to dwell among them, Moshe understood of his own accord that the command concerning the Mishkan remained valid as before, and he then commanded Israel regarding it, as I have explained in the section of Vayakhel. 

The Ramban is adding to his previous statement about the purpose of this Divine Presence in our midst: The secret of the Mishkan is that the glory which abode upon Mount Sinai openly, should abide upon the nation in a concealed manner (Shmot 25:1). This is an extremely beautiful and satisfying concept. 

There are, it seems, two contrasting views on the role of the Mishkan, and, later, Beit HaMikdash. Rashi’s view is that these structural representations of God’s Divine Presence in our midst became necessary because of our national sin of the Golden Calf. If we could avoid sin, not a likely scenario, we could do without these magnificent physical reminders of God’s presence. While the Ramban suggests that there was always a wonderful purpose for tangible reminders of the Divine Presence (SHECHINA, from the original promise of the Mishkan, ‘V’SHACHANTI B’TOCHAM). 

What might be the underlying philosophies behind these opposing views? According to the Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), there are two differing approaches to worshipping God. He writes: the worship of God based on His miracles, is called “testimony,” for it testifies to Him. This stands in contrast to one who recognizes His true essence, He having created everything; he sees with the eye of his mind that everything exists because of Him, blessed be He (Parshat Pekudei). 

The Rebbe is describing two different individuals. One needs periodic concrete reminders of God’s presence. The other finds sufficient support to the notion of God’s eternal Presence in the wonders of nature every day. I would like to add that these don’t have to be two different people. I think the same person can have days when the beauty of this world is sufficient to inspire perfect faith. On the other hand, there may be times and situations when more concrete evidence of the SHECHINA would be greatly useful and appreciated. 

The position of the Kedushat Levi would also explain why we have the entire construction process of the Mishkan in our Torah twice. Once is for the person who truly needs the reminders of God’s Presence, and requires forgiveness for lapses. The other version is for the individual who, generally, is perfectly fine, but can periodically use a spiritual booster shot. 

It’s a classic argument. Do we need the Beit HaMikdash to help us repent and repair our fragile relationship with God or do we crave a concrete reminder of the God who created our beautiful world for reinforcement? Answer: YES!! The totality of the nation desires them both. 

It’s so wonderful to view the Temple Mount and imagine the future magnificence, but for the time being, the concept alone sustains us.  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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