Why build the Mishkan?


Our parasha, Terumah, focuses upon the mitzvah of constructing the Mishkan (portable desert Sanctuary). The verse that conveys this commandment is found early on in our Torah reading: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary (Mikdash) and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). 

The Rambam (Maimonides) formulates this mitzvah in the following manner: “We are commanded to build a House of 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, ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary’” (Sefer HaMitzvot).

As the Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael notes, however, the very act of constructing a Mikdash for Hashem is quite problematic: Does G-d not fill the heavens and earth? How can any dwelling contain Him?

This question is echoed in Yeshayahu’s well-known declaration: “So says the L-rd, ‘The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool; which is the house that you will build for Me, and which is the place of My rest?’” (Yeshayahu 66:1)

Rashi underscores the prophet’s proclamation in his commentary: “‘The heavens are my throne’ — [therefore] I do not need your Temple; ‘which is the house that you will build for Me’ — that is fitting for My Presence?”

We now have a true conundrum: If there is no need for a Mikdash, why did the Torah command us to build one, and why do we pray three times a day following the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei, “May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days?”

My rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, addresses our question in his analysis of the rationale for the construction of the Mikdash. He notes, “G-d created the world to reside in it, rather than reside in transcendence” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Shemot, page 226). 

According to the Rav, this was precisely the extraordinary environment in which Adam and Chava initially lived: “Man could have continually experienced [G-d] instead of trying to infer His Presence through examining nature. But in the wake of the original sin by Adam and Eve, He retreated.”

Tragically, as a result of Adam and Chava having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem withdrew into otherworldliness, and, as the Rav explains, humanity’s ability to continually experience Him abruptly ceased: “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.”

In sum, as a result of Adam’s sin and abject fear of further direct communication with Hashem, the Almighty removed His Shechinah and left mankind’s deep-rooted need for a dynamic connection to the Almighty unmet. Little wonder, then, that the Rav teaches us that the ultimate “…purpose of the tabernacle was to restore the relationship between man and G-d,” in order that His Shechinah could reside amongst us.

With Hashem’s help, may we strive to live lives wherein we continually seek the Almighty and search for his Holy Presence.

Moreover, “May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days” in order that our relationship will be complete once again.