J.J Gross

Vayakhel: Did we destroy the Beit Hamikdash, or did it destroy us?

כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־משֶׁ֑ה כֵּ֤ן עָשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֵ֖ת כָּל־הָֽעֲבֹדָֽה

Just as God had commanded Moshe, the Bnei Israel undertook the entire project (Shemot: 39:42)

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) was an intense, even frenzied labor of love shared by the entirety of the Bnei Israel. Every bit of wood, precious metals, fabrics, gemstones, was donated – most of it voluntarily. Likewise the actual labor – from the design and craftsmanship to the actual erection of God’s earthly dwelling – was a unified and, indeed, unifying project that excluded no one.

The Mishkan project – which took approximately one year of feverish activity to complete – predates the Meraglim, the episode of the spies. It took place at a time when the Bnei Israel were heading, more or less directly, to the Promised Land. Hence, the Mishkan was clearly not intended as a temporary sanctuary that would become obsolete within a short time, only to be replaced by a grandiloquent, permanent, fixed-base temple.

Indeed there is no hint whatsoever in the Torah that the Mishkan was destined for mothballs at any time in the future. And judging by the costly materials, the emphasis on esthetics, and the fact that, according to Scripture, every last detail was dictated to Moshe by the Almighty, the Mishkan was clearly intended to serve the spiritual needs of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel for the duration. It had no expiration date.

The beauty of the Mishkan concept was twofold. On the one had it was manifestly gorgeous. No expense was spared in order to bring it to life. On the other hand it was modest. It was a tent, not an edifice. An itinerant sanctuary that would literally fulfill the words of God:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם

And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst
(Shemot 26:8 Parshat Terumah)

Taken literally, “to dwell in their midst” would mean that the Mishkan – once Eretz Israel had been conquered and settled – would travel from tribe to tribe, from community to community .This would provide every every Jew an opportunity to, at regular intervals, engage with God through its activities and rituals. No part of Eretz Israel would be more important than any other part. No single tribe would lay claim to owning God’s earthly dwelling.

The idea of royalty is anathema to the Torah. It grudgingly allows, but hardly encourages, the Israelites to choose a king. By its very nature, royalty – claims of “divine right” notwithstanding – displaces God’s primacy with a ruler of flesh and blood. Inevitably, such a mortal monarch becomes besotted with a desire for immortality. And this, in turn, results in the construction of a grand edifice that is declared a holy temple, even though it is clearly more a monument to the tastes and ego of the king who built it.

By scuttling the Mishkan and replacing it with the Beit HaMikdash, Shlomo made it very clear that God belonged exclusively in his personal backyard. No longer would the sanctuary belong to the People.

Who could blame the lost ten tribes from becoming pagans and idolators, when they were so manifestly disenfranchised? Did anyone ask their permission to permanently plant the Holy of Holies in one place? By what right did the tribe of Yehuda get to arrogate this honor for itself?

Indeed, had there been no monarch – which was clearly God’s preference – there would never have been a Beit HaMikdash.

The tribe of Levi – kohanim and leviim – were never given a portion in the Land precisely because it was their role to travel with the Mishkan, thereby serving God and the People. And by doing so, the Mishkan became the ultimate democratizer – it gave no single tribe primacy over any other tribe. There was no pride of place, location was irrelevant.

If we ignore all the myths and Talmudic fantasies about the glory of the Beit HaMikdash, we are left with the awful truth that at no time was either the first or second temple a unifying force for the Jewish People. Like the edifice complex behind the construction of so many synagogues in modern times, they were more a reflection of the ambitions and egotistical needs of mortal monarchs.

Does anyone really think that God would live in a temple built by a villain like Herod? When the Hashmonaim – after their brief moment of spiritual valor – become corrupt kings-cum-priests, was that something we can be proud of? Is there anything we actually know about the dealings in the second temple – the displays of wealth, the conspicuous consumption, the corruption of kohanim – that in any way reflected the ideas and ideal of the Mishkan, and served as a suitable dwelling for the Lord?

Indeed, what was it that caused the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth and the exile from our Land? We would like to think it was the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. I would argue the opposite. That it was the Beit Hamikdash which destroyed the Jewish People, and made exile inevitable.

Had we stuck with God’s plan, there would have been no kings and no temples. We would just have a simple but beautiful Mishkan to which every Jew in Israel could feel a connection; which every Jew in Israel would lovingly help assemble and take apart when it was the turn of his tribe or community. And it would have been a constant reminder that man, like God, should live in a humble abode, content with enjoying the things that truly matter.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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