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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Building the Mishkan: Enabling and Interacting with the Transcendent Divine Presence

Parshat Terumah records the obligation to build the Mishkan, the model and precursor for a more permanent Beit Ha-mikdash. The sequence of the Torah's presentation of this mitzvah is somewhat surprising. Instead of first defining or even articulating the imperative (and perhaps also its objective) and then proceeding to delineate the method of its achievement, the Torah reverses the anticipated order. We are first informed that a collection is to be organized (Shemot 25:2)- "ve-yikchu Lee terumah mei-eit kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu et terumati" Subsequently, the Torah identifies the ingredients to be gathered for the as of yet unnamed project (25:3) - "ve-zot ha-terumah asher tikchu mei-itam zahav, vakesef, u-nechoshet" Only several verses later (25:8) does the Torah finally reveal the actual goal: "ve-asu Lee mikdash ve-shakhanti betocham" The impression of this reversal is that the process enables or at least illuminates the objective.

We may better appreciate the Torah's arrangement and formulation of this mitzvah in light of the Ramban's perspective on the building of the Mishkan. The Ramban notes that context of this mitzvah demands our attention. The previous subject treated in the end of Mishpatim focuses on the inimitable spiritual experience of the Divine Revelation at Har Sinai and concludes with Moshe Rabbeinu's ascent, enveloped by a cloud, to receive the luchot. The Ramban posits that the Mishkan-Mikdash constitutes a manifestation that parallels that prior experience of hashraat ha-Shechinah. He adduces numerous parallels that link the two phenomena. Moreover, he asserts that the Mishkan-Mikdash captures the spirit of the Divine Revelation at Sinai itself. The Ramban further develops this view in his introduction to Shemot, and in his introduction to Vayikra. [See also his hassagot on Sefer ha-Mitzvot, aseh 33 in light of Rambam's view in aseh 20.] The Ramban's position that the objective of the Mishkan-Mikdash is precisely to create a locus which enshrines Hashem's transcendent presence is sometimes contrasted with the Rambam's more functional formulation of the mitzvah of building a Mishkan-Mikdash as a means or framework for the sacrificial rite. [See Hilchot Beit Ha-bechirah 1:1. I believe that Rambam's position is quite a bit more complex than the instrumental perspective usually attributed. See, also Hil. Beit Ha-bechirah 1:5,6,12; Hil. Melachim 1:1; Sefer Ha-mitzvot, aseh 20. I hope to address this at another opportunity.]

It is evident that the very notion of a physical abode as the repository of the Shechinah is a theologically and halachically challenging notion. (See Divrei ha-Yamim 2:6:18) Yet, it is one which characterizes Judaism's unique religious perspective. [See Shemot 24:11- "ve-el azilei benei yisraello shalach yado; va-yechezu et ha-Elokim vayochlu vayishtu"] The Torah by reversing the anticipated order in its formulation of this mitzvah may be conveying that the ingredients first delineated by the Torah constitute preconditions and a methodology to achieve this seemingly impossible mix of physical avodat Hashem that does not compromise or dilute Hashem's transcendence-Shechinah. Moreover, the Torah may be accentuating the fact that the Mishkan-Mikdash is not only a venue that affords contact or access to the transcendent Shechinah or even the memory of the Sinaitic Revelation, but also one which continues to facilitate meaningful interaction between Klal Yisrael and Hashem, enhancing the reciprocal relationship and the capacity for Klal Yisrael's even greater spiritual achievement .

Given this perspective, a brief examination of three of the ingredients that precede and perhaps validate the existence of a physical repository for the Shechinah and that facilitate a meaningful interaction with it, is in order and may further illuminate Judaism's outlook on the attainment of true spirituality. We will limit ourselves to the very first verse.

The Torah adds the word "Lee" ("ve-yikchu Lee terumah"). Rashi cites the rabbinic view that this refers to the requirement of lishmah. The capacity to set aside self-interest or any other ulterior motive uniquely reflects man's spiritual potential. Lishmah betokens an idealistic posture that implicitly recognizes transcendence. It is a sine qua non for the mitzvah of building the Mishkan-Mikdash precisely because it acknowledges the ultimate goal and demonstrates man's worthiness to partake in and ability to interact with hashraat haShechinah.

It is noteworthy that the Torah speaks of the imperative of collecting the terumah - "veyichu Lee terumah"- albeit from those who volunteer and thereby reflect a generosity of spirit - "mei-eit kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu et terumati". There is ample discussion among the mefarshim regarding this apparent dialectic. [See, for example, Seforno, Pesukta Zutrati, HaGriz al ha-Torah ]. Moreover, the gemara establishes generally that one can enforce the collection of tzedakah (Bava Basra 8a; Ketuvot 48a). It is possible that the nedivut leiv - generosity of spirit and a posture of voluntarism was required specifically for Mishkan-Mikdash donations precisely because the the capacity and objective of interaction with hashraat ha-Shechinah was predicated upon man's idealism and his visionary potential, which includes his awareness of causes greater than himself.  

The Torah formulates the projected donation as a "terumah". The midrash, significantly also prominently cited by the Ramban, notes that Klal Yisrael themselves are the ultimate terumah of Hashem (based on Yirmiyahu 2:2). In this way , the Torah signifies that the Mishkan-Mikdash existed not merely as a symbol of Hashem's presence, or even as a reminder of the shining moment and weighty substance of mattan Torah, but as vehicle to further the development of Klal Yisrael and to further enhance the interrelationship between Hashem and his people. Furthermore, this usage reinforces the previous emphasis of "Lee" and "asher yidvenu libo", as Klal Yisrael are asked not merely to donate and contribute, but to commit of themselves.

In this vein, the Ramban also records the stirring words of the Midrash Rabbah: "amar lahen Hakadosh Baruch Hu, macharti lachem torati vekivyachol nimkarti imah, shene'emar vayikchu Lee terumah, ki haterumah tihiyeh Lee va'ani imah, kederech dodi lee va-ani lo" Thus, mattan Torah constituted a unique transaction in that Hashem included Himself in the transaction. Strikingly this is signified by the usage of terumah, implying a reciprocal bond, in this context of the building of the Sanctuary of His Shechinah.

We yearn for the time when the physical structure of the Beit Hamikdash will once again enshrine the transcendent Divine presence. Until then, we can take comfort in the fact that every beit haknesset and beit midrash constitutes a mikdash meat. By extension, applying the idealistic guidelines that enabled kellal yisrael to achieve this seemingly unrealizable spiritual attainment of "veasu Lee mikdash ve-shachanti be-tocham" to our own spiritual structures affords a measure of the opportunities and challenges of a concrete avodat Hashem that facilitates and enhances our meaningful interaction with Hasher's transcendence.

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