Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

The Mishkan, Har Sinai, Torah and Eretz Yisrael


Parashas Teruma begins the Torah's lengthy presentation, spanning five parshiyos, of the building of the mishkan in the desert and, more generally, the concept of mikdash. Clearly, the number of chapters and verses devoted to this topic and the repeat of its major components both indicate its absolute centrality.

The words of Ramban in his introduction to Sefer Shemos are most informative of the purpose of the mishkan. Parts have been bolded for ease of reference in the subsequent analysis.

The book of "v'eileh shemos" was dedicated to the first explicitly decreed exile and to the redemption from it... Now, the exile is not complete until their return to their place and [when] they would return to the level of their ancestors. When they left Egypt, even though they had left the house of slavery, they were still considered exiled since they were in a land not theirs, wandering in the desert. When they came to har Sinai and made the mishkan[1], and HaKadosh Baruch Hu returned and rested His Shechina among them, then they returned to the level of their ancestors which was the secret communion (sod Eloka) with G-d on their tents, and they themselves were the Divine Chariot, and then they were considered redeemed. Therefore, this book ends with the completion of the mishkan and with the Glory of Hashem filling it constantly.

These brief but penetrating words of Ramban highlight the mishkan's role as nothing short of communion with the Divine presence itself, the goal of the entire creation - the level reached by our Avos, lost by their descendants and later achieved again. It is no wonder then that the Torah devotes so much time to this crucial concept.

However, his precious words require further study. In trying to uncover the unifying theme of the book of Shemos, Ramban presents the thesis that this sefer is the book of exile and the redemption from it. But the redemption is ostensibly over in the middle of parashas Beshalach when the Jewish people leave Yam Suf! To this question, Ramban answers that the Exodus from Egypt alone did not qualify as a complete redemption. The rest of the book of Shemos, describing the giving of the Torah and the building of the mishkan, addresses its completion.

However, Ramban seemingly starts with two criteria for redemption: 1) "their return to their place" and 2) "[their] return to the level of their ancestors". The first seems to address the physical return to their land from which they were exiled[2]; the second addresses the return to their lofty spiritual level lost by their exile. The stress on the physical exile is further highlighted by the subsequent statement "since they were in a land not theirs, wandering in the desert[3]". But yet, the Ramban, in describing how the Jewish people were considered redeemed as of the end of Sefer Shemos, focuses on only one theme: "then they returned to the level of their ancestors... then they were considered redeemed." Even though they had not returned to their place, they were still considered redeemed since the Divine presence rested among them. But the Ramban originally had included return to their place as another component of redemption! How can this contradiction be resolved?

The commentaries on Ramban are divided into two basic camps in resolving this problem. The first group (see Beis HaYayin, Oz v'Hadar, Tuv Yerushalayim, Lev Tzion, and Harerei Kodesh) views the initial statement "to their place" as a metaphor for their spiritual status. Hence, the Ramban never focused on the physical exile. However, this answer is difficult to accept since, as mentioned above, Ramban talks also of "a land not theirs".

The second approach (see Menacheim Tzion and Yekev Ephraim) understands that Ramban viewed the Jewish experience in the midbar as if they were actually in Eretz Yisrael. Both this approach and the first one, do not deny, of course, that entry into Eretz Yisrael was part of the Divine plan. Only in the Land of Israel would the Jews fully fulfill their spiritual destiny. But the entire purpose of entry into the Land was to live under the protective wings of the Shechina centered in the mikdash in Jerusalem (see Ramban, parashas Acharei Mos (18:25) at length). The first approach maintains that when this was achieved earlier in the midbar, they already achieved this basic milestone and could be considered redeemed even though they were not in Eretz Yisrael per se. The second approach goes a step further, explaining that being in this state of having the Divine presence rest upon them was as if, in at least an extended sense, "they returned to their place."

Yekev Ephraim, apparently still troubled by the fact that they did not actually enter "their place" quotes an awe-inspiring passage from Rav Moshe Cordovero's Pardes Rimonim (25:2) indicating that in the desert, they literally lived in the equivalent of Eretz Yisrael.[4] The passage reads as follows:

For the gateway to heaven to enter sanctity is Eretz Yisrael, and because of this, prophecy only rests in Eretz Yisrael... There is no difficulty from the generation of the desert, since the air of the Land of Israel went with them. If you do not say this, how did they eat kodoshim outside of the Land?! Rather, the air, the expanses, the sky, the portals and the (angelic) officers, all of them traveled with the Shechina which traveled with them. This is explained in the Zohar (Teruma 140b). That gateway and air went with them until the entry into the Land of Israel, to its appropriate place. There is the resting place of sanctity for there is the gateway to heaven as we have explained.

The ReMaK seems to be saying that although the midbar was transformed into a "mini-Israel", this was only a temporary state until the everlasting place of the Shechina was entered. Perhaps we can suggest, that Hashem Yisborach, in His kindness, wished to demonstrate to us openly, soon after the Exodus, what Eretz Yisrael's essence was even though they would not see this manifestly anywhere in Eretz Yisrael except in the mikdash.

This link between Eretz Yisrael and midbar Sinai is also made by Ibn Ezra in his comments to Tehillim (68:18). The verse states: "Hashem is among them, Sinai in holiness". On this he writes: "The Divine presence is among them like Sinai in holiness. It is lacking the kof (like)... Its explanation is that the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael is like that of har Sinai."[5] It would appear that Ibn Ezra switches the comparison from that of ReMaK. Rav Cordovero states that the desert took on the sanctity of Israel. Ibn Ezra maintains that Eretz Yisrael has the sanctity of Sinai. (But see previous footnote.)


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l advanced the link of har Sinai to Eretz Yisrael further. Since Rav Chaim Volozhin zt"l (Nefesh Hachaim 4:30) explains that the only objects that are considered "gufei kedusha" (objects of direct sanctity) are Torah or its parts, Eretz Yisrael's kedusha must somehow be linked to that of the Torah. The Rav explained that indeed the Aron HaBris containing the luchos and the Torah preceded the Jews in the battles of the conquest of the land. This was in order to "inject" the kedushas haTorah into Eretz Yisrael. (See MiPeninei HaRav, by mori v'Rabi Rav Hershel Schachter shlit"a, pp. 335).

However, this approach, at first glance, seems incomplete. Kaftor VaFerach explains that Eretz Yisrael has two types of sanctity: the sanctity of Shechina and the sanctity of mitzvos. The first was endowed by Hashem even before the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel. This manifests itself by, among other things, the special Divine providence present in the Land. The second was bestowed by the Jewish people: in the days of Yehoshua by conquest (kibbush) and in the days of Ezra by taking possession (chazaka). This sanctity has relevance for the mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz enabling them to apply. In the language of Chasam Sofer, the second sanctity can be abrogated as it was after the Babyonian conquest. The first "is an eternal sanctity for the entire history of the world. It has never changed and will never change." (See Encylopedia Talmudit, vol. 2, Eretz Yisrael, 2, Kedushasa umitzvoseha.) How is the first type of sanctity dependent on Torah?

Perhaps we can explain that the only real source of kedusha in the world is Hakadosh Baruch Hu's presence. The study of Torah connects us to this Presence (see Avos 3:6). Hence both the first type of sanctity and the second type of sanctity are both rooted in kedushas haShechina. This duality is perhaps included in Ibn Ezra's brief but far-reaching words: "the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael is like that of har Sinai." Har Sinai was both a direct experience of openly revealed Shechina and was the place of the giving of the Torah whose study would continue to connect the Jewish people to this Presence even when not in the mikdash and even in the exile. The mishkan in the desert also served as a place of openly revealed Shechina and as a place of continued revelation of Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu. This dual role was also fulfilled later by the mikdash in Yerushalayim being the resting place of the Shechina and well as the seat of the Sanhedrin, the "ikar Torah shebe'al peh" (Ramban, Hilchos Mamrim 1:1).

May we always increase our connection to two of the main sources of Divine presence in the world: Hashem's holy Torah and His holy Land, two of the central gifts He has bestowed in His kindness to His beloved nation.

[1] See Ramban (beginning of Teruma) that the mishkan was a continuation of har Sinai. This is likely the reason why Ramban here juxtaposes the two as well.

[2] See Netzach Yisrael (1) of Maharal where he underscores the exile from the land as a crucial part of galus and the return to it as a central feature of geula.

[3] The commentraries on Ramban raise a difficulty with the phrase, "wandering in the desert" which was originally uttered by Pharaoh. The Jews were led by the Divine cloud and were not, in truth, "wandering"! Perhaps the Ramban, by this phrase, refers poetically to their spiritual malaise mentioned earlier. Hence, the two phrases "since they were in a land not theirs, wandering in the desert" parallel the earlier two phrases, "their return to their place and [when] they would return to the level of their ancestors".

[4] See also Rashi and Tosfos to Taanis (16a) who cryptically comment that har Hamoriya refers to har Sinai. This can be explained by Midrash Tehillim which states that har Hamoriya, the place of akeidas Yitzchak, uprooted to the midbar to join with har Sinai! (See Diveri Yatziv, C.M. 92.)

[5] The text in all printed editions of Ibn Ezra reads"וטעם ה' בם, השכינה בם בסיני בקדש, ויחסר כ"ף כמו 'ועיר פרא אדם יולד'. והנה הטעם כי קדושת ארץ ישראל בהר סיני" I translated it above as if it were written with a kof instead of a beis: כסיני and כהר סיני. I believe this reading is the only way to reconcile the statement "ויחסר כ"ף" and fits with Ibn Ezra's entire thesis that the perek addresses har HaMoriyah and the Beis Hamikdash and not har Sinai, as other commentaries maintain.

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