Making a Mikdash: Classical Understanding With Hassidic Illumination

Immediately following Moshe’s forty-day and forty-night stay atop Mount Sinai, Hashem instructs him to command Benei Yisrael to make a Mishkan. Hashem first tells Moshe that he should take Terumah, a monetary donation that is set aside for Hashem,[1] from anyone in Benei Yisrael “whose heart inspires him to generosity,” “Me’es kol ish asher yidvenu libo,”[2] and so gives willingly from his heart. The Torah then lists the material considered Terumah, which are the fifteen items necessary for the building of the Mishkan. Hashem tells Moshe to take those specific items from the materials donated and use them to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” “V’asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti bi-tocham,”[3] While this command may seem on the surface to be straightforward enough, the verses proceeding and following “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham” refer to the structure that is to be built for God as a Mishkan and not a “Mikdash.” Many classical commentaries approach this discrepancy by explaining that the “Mikdash” serves a greater purpose for both God and Benei Yisrael, far beyond the command to build the physical structure of the Mishkan. Hassidic philosophy and interpretation can in turn illuminate and deepen these more classical understandings, giving them particular resonance for the individual.

Rashbam[4] explains that a mikdash is a place where Hashem is sanctified and where Hashem addresses Benei Yisrael. He quotes another verse in Exodus[5] which says regarding the Mishkan, “V’noaditi shama li-benei yisrael,” “And there I will meet with the Israelites.” In other words, the Mishkan is the “meeting spot” for Hashem and Benei Yisrael; a place where Hashem can communicate with His people,

Sforno[6] understands the purpose of the Mishkan from the opposite perspective. While both commentators see it as a “meeting spot,” Sforno is unique in that he sees it as a place for Benei Yisrael to communicate with Hashem. Sforno says that the Mishkan is the place for Hashem to dwell amongst them, “to accept their prayer and worship.” Not only will Hashem talk to Benei Yisrael from the Mishkan, as Rashbam pointed out, but it will be a place for Benei Yisrael to pray and bring sacrificial offerings to Hashem – a place for the expression of man’s participation in a divine relationship.

Rashi[7] explains that “V’asu li mikdash” refers to a “beis kedusha,” a house of holiness. Hashem is asking Benei Yisrael to make a holy place “lishmi,” for My name.[8] The idea of building a Mishkan is that it is kadosh, holy. Ramban[9] highlights the fact that right before this mitzvah was given, Benei Yisrael was made into a “Mamlechet Kohanim,” a Kingdom of Priests, and a “Goy Kadosh,” a Holy Nation. Once given the title of a Holy Nation, Benei Yisrael need a holy place for Hashem’s presence to reside. The necessity for a Mikdash, a holy place, is then channeled into the specific command to build the Mishkan, which would fulfill that need. In this light, the command for a “Mikdash” is the reason, or the predecessor, of the command for the Mishkan.

While Ramban sees the Mishkan as necessary because Benei Yisrael is kadosh, Ibn Ezra[10] notes that the Mishkan is called “Mikdash” because Hashem is Kadosh, and therefore needs a holy place to dwell. According to Ibn Ezra, the purpose of the Mishkan is for Hashem’s honor by providing Him with a Holy place in which to dwell.

The very first mitzvah discussed in Rambam’s Hilchos Beis Bechira[11] quotes “V’asu li Mikdash” as the source-text for the general command to make a house for Hashem, whether that house be the Mishkan or the Beit Hamikdash. Based on this understanding, the Ohr Hachayim[12] elaborates that this command is for all times. The Ohr Hachayim points out that this command to make a house for Hashem applied in the desert, in the Land of Israel, and even during the Diaspora. The only reason that the Jewish people cannot build a house for Hashem in exile is because Torah prohibits the building of such a house anywhere other than in the exact spot of the Beit Hamikdash, and in exile access to the precise location is limited. Because Hashem gave the general command to build a “Mikdash,” a house for Hashem, while Benei Yisrael were travelling in the desert, Hashem instructed them how to build such a Mikdash in the desert, namely, the Mishkan, because the desert is not a practical place for a stone building such as the Beit Hasmikdash.

The Ohr Hachayim takes note of the specific wording in the command of “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham,” “You will make me a Mikdash and I dwell in them. One would expect the verse to say, “V’Asu Li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocho,” “You will make me a Mikdash and I dwell in it,” meaning that God will dwell in the Mishkan. Ohr Hachayim explains that “Bi-tocham” refers to “bi-toch Benei Yisrael,” meaning that God will dwell amongst Benei Yisrael. This understanding reflects the physical placement of the Mishkan encircled by the four camps of the tribes, placing it directly in the midsts of Benei Yisrael. It is in this context that the Ohr Hachayim points out the purpose of the Mishkan: “V’asu li Mikdash” serves the purpose of “v’shachanti bi-tocham” – to dwell in the midst of Benei Yisrael. Hashem desires to be within Benei Yisrael, and it is because of this love and desire that He commands them to make a place for Him to dwell with them. According to Ohr Hachayim, the purpose of the Mishkan is to create a place in which Hashem can be close with His chosen people.

Abarbanel[13] explains that the specific commandments for how to make the Mishkan are given in order to provide merit for Benei Yisrael. He further emphasizes that the larger purpose behind the Mishkan is for Benei Yisrael to prepare a Mikdash in such a way that Hashem could dwell in it as he dwelled on Mount Sinai. Hashem’s presence is explicitly said to have dwelt at Mount Sinai, therefore the Mishkan should serve as a home for Hashem’s presence in much the same way. Hashem worded His command in a way that would allow Benei Yisrael to glean the most merit from the making of the Mishkan. The donations are “me’es kol ish,” from every person,[14] not only from the tribal and community leaders. Additionally, it was “me’es kol ish asher yidvenu libo,” “whose heart inspires him to generosity,” indicating that this was a voluntary donation as opposed to an obligatory offering. The donations are to come from the people’s own will, rather than an obligation. Additionally, Benei Yisrael are not told what materials to donate; instead Moshe is to take what is needed from their donations, allowing them to give freely of whatever materials they want to give. All this is meant to add to their merit, for it allows the Jewish people to serve God out of their own will and with their own hearts.

Given the above, Abarbanel understands the organization of the verses in this section as such: Hashem tells Moshe to take the Terumah from the donations that Benei Yisrael give out of their own free will. Because Benei Yisrael donates of their own volition, Moshe needs to take specific materials from these donations which are actually needed for the Mishkan; which the verses then enumerate right there. Then Hashem explains what to do with these donations, namely, “V’asulLi Mikdash,” to make for me a holy place that He can dwell in. To clarify how such a structure should be made, Hashem goes on to explain the specifications of how to construct the Mikdash of the desert, the Mishkan. The Abarbanel sees the wording “Mikdash” as the general idea of making a holy place for Hashem to dwell in, and the specific instructions for the Mishkan as the fulfillment of this idea.

Abarbanel explains the purpose of the Mishkan, or really any Mikdash, is to allow for Hashem’s presence to attach to Benei Yisrael without land, desert, or any other forms of physicality getting in the way. The Mishkan is meant to show that Hashem’s presence and providence is with Benei Yisrael even in the corporeal human world. The Mishkan forces Benei Yisrael to think differently than the other nations. It is an answer to those who deny God’s providence in the details of the world and instead believe that Hashem rejects corporeality, claiming that “Hashem ba-shaymayim heichin kisso,” “Hashem makes His throne in Heaven,”[15] and so resides in the heavens, and only in the heavens. We easily relate to God as a spiritual entity who we can surely connect to through prayer, learning Torah, and doing His will, but it is less natural for us to relate to God as a presence in the physical and mundane aspects of life, such as in the workplace or in the grocery. Bringing G-d into the parts of life that are deeply steeped in “worldliness” is a much more difficult task than serving God while being involved in objectively religious acts. Abarbanel understands the Mishkan as a physical structure that can teach us to recognize God in the physical and worldly aspects of our lives. Hashem commanded Benei Yisroel to build a Mikdash in order to remove the false beliefs of the other nations and allow them see Him as a God who lives in their midst, “Vi’chai Bi-kirbam,” and whose providence permeates even the mundane details of their lives. Abarbanel points out that this dwelling in our midst occurs even “bi-tumatam,” in their impurity, meaning that even in their corporeality and in the context of the physical world, Hashem still swells with them. Arbabanel argues that the central purpose in Hashem’s command to build a mikdash is “V’shachanti bi-tocham,” for Hashem to dwell with Benei Yisrael in the physical world.

Midrash Tanchuma[16] quotes R’ Shmuel bar Nachman as saying: “Bi-sha’ah she-bara Hakadosh Baruch Hu et ha-olam, nisava she-yehei lo dirah bi-tachtonim kemo sheyesh bi-elyonim,” “in the time that Hashem created the world, He desired that there should be for Him a dwelling place in the lower places like that there is in the high places.”  Hashem wants a dwelling place “bi-tachtonim,” down on earth, in the lowliest of places. The Midrash describes the movement of Hashem’s presence in its ascent away from the world: At the beginning of the creation, His presence was in the world, but the sin of the Adam and Eve pushed G-d away and up to the first “rakia,” or sphere. After six more monumental sins Hashem’s presence totally left the seven rakiot of this world. Then Abraham, with his good deeds, drew Hashem’s presence back down a sphere, Yitzchak another, Yakov another until Moshe brought It all the way down to our world during the historical event that occurred at Mount Sinai, as the verse states, “va-yared Hashem al har Sinai,” “And Hashem came down upon Mount Sinai.”[17] The renewal of Hashem’s dwelling in the physical, lowest world began at Mount Sinai, but it was solidified through the service in the Mishkan. The Midrash Tanchuma quotes a verse from Song of Songs, in which Hashem proclaims, “Basi li-gani,” “I have come to my garden,”[18] and asks:When did Hashem come into His garden? The Midrash answers thatHashem came to His garden “when the Mishkan was erected.”

Abarbanel’s understanding of the Mishkan touches upon the idea of this Midrash that God is not meant to be in the rakia, but rather He is meant to dwell down on earth, with man. Not only is that the purpose of the Mishkan, but this is also the actual purpose of creation. The Midrash demonstrates this point: Hashem “nisavah,” wanted, a “dira bi-tachtonim,” a dwelling place down on earth. In this light, the Mishkan is not just a holy place for God and Benei Yisrael to communicate; it is actually the fulfillment of the purpose of creation for it allows God to specifically dwell in the physical world. In fact, some of the most corporeal sections in the Torah are found in the descriptions of the materials needed for building the Mishkan. It is so physical, so technical, but that is precisely the point; these sections are just as much “Torah” as any other section, because God dwells in the physical too.

To Abarbanel, the Mishkan was not just about the dwelling in the actual Mishkan as described in the Torah, but, more importantly, it serves as the archetype of God’s dwelling in this world. The Mishkan captured the essence of the idea of “dira bi-tachtonim” and emphasized the need to emulate this idea in our everyday lives. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in his first ma’amar, or Hassidic discourse, outlined this very concept as the central theme for his generation and therefore the central theme that he would highlight during his leadership. Throughout his tenure, this Midrash that emphasizes the idea of “dira bi-tachtonim” as the purpose of creation and its source in this pasuk, “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham,” were both constant sources of inspiration for the way that he looked at the world. In the aforementioned Ma’amer, titled Basi li-Gani  (eluding to God’s presence returning to dwell in the world as discussed in the Midrash above), the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the Beit Hamikdash, and the Mishkan before it, encapsulate this concept of “dirah bi-tachtonim,” that God wants to dwell in this world. He even quotes our verse, “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham,” to prove the point that both structures are all about bringing God down to earth.[19]

The Hassidic perspective sees ‘V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham’ as a general Avodah, a mode of worship, to bring God into the world. The chitzoniut of the verse, or the external and revealed meaning, is to build a physical Mikdash, but the pnimiut, or the underlying intent and inner meaning of the verse, is to engage in this greater calling, to bring God into the world and into our everyday lives. In his ma’amer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, in the original Basi Li-Gani Ma’amer,[20] on which his ma’amer is based: “The language of the verse is precise [in saying] ‘and I will dwell in them,’ it doesn’t say ‘in it’ [which would refer to the Mishkan], rather, ‘in them,’ [meaning] within each and every Jew.” If “V’asu li Mikdash” refers to every individual Jew, then the verse becomes a directive for every person to make a personal Mikdash by bringing God down to dwell within ourselves, in our own lives.

Hassidut is the Pnimiut of Torah, the inner intent and message behind the text.[21] The Torah has four levels of interpretation: peshat – the simple meaning, remez – the hinted meaning, derash – the expounded meaning, and sod – the mystical meaning. These methods advance our understanding of the chitzoniut, the external or revealed aspect of the Torah.[22] In contrast, Hassidut brings out the inner, pnimiut, idea of a particular passage, which imbues the external interpretations of the passage with life and vitality.[23] Understanding the underlying intent of something can give clarity and vitality to otherwise dry and technical actions or material. This is why we love to know why before what, and why even taking out the garbage can be an act of love for another person, for when we understand the underlying intent behind something, the thing gains clarity and vitality. When we understand the underlying idea, the inner intent, behind a passage in Torah, it brings life and vitality as well as clarity to every aspect of that passage’s interpretation.

The Hassidic interpretation of “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti bi-tocham” as a general approach to bringing God into our lives and into the world is the pnimiut perspective of this verse. Therefore, every peshat, remez, derash and sod interpretation of this verse gains clarity and vitality in light of this perspective. When looking closely, it is possible to see the presence of this underlying message in the classic commentators and their views on the Mishkan as discussed above. For example, a dira bi-tachtonim is sometimes spoken about in Hassidic works as the “meeting spot” for heaven and earth, a guide for how we can bring the two together, united in the physical world.[24] This can be seen in the Rashbam’s usage of the words from the verse, “V’noaditi shema li-Benei Yisrael,” “and there I will meet with the Israelites,”[25] to explain that the purpose of the Mishkan is to act as a meeting spot. While Rashbam focuses on Hashem’s communication with Benei Yisrael, Sforno focuses on our service to Hashem. Taken together these two approaches encapsulate the two aspects needed to make a dira bi-tachtonim: G-d coming down to us and us going towards Him. This concept is referred to in Hassidic thought as mi-li-ma’ala li-mata, from above to below, and mi-li-mata li-ma’ala, from below to above.[26]

Ohr Hachayim explains that Rambam understands the aforementioned command to be a general one and explicitly notes that this applies for all times, including during exile.  While Ohr Hachayim refers to the physical building which we are technically obligated to build even in exile, this idea lends itself easily to the pnimiut idea that building a Mikdash is a general directive for all times, even in exile, for each person on an individual level. Ohr Hachayim points out that the purpose of the Mishkan is for Hashem to dwell “amongst them,” meaning amongst Benei Yisrael, because “Ahav li-hiyot ken bi-tocham,” “He loves to be amongst them.” This concept is similar to the Midrash’s statement “nisava she-yehei lo dirah bi-tachtonim,” “He desired that there should be for Him a dwelling place in the lower places,” which the Midrash states as the purpose of creation. Abarbanel also touches on this pnimiut message by pointing out that God dwells in the Mishkan, even though Benei Yisrael may be in a state of impurity. As the Midrash highlights, God desires to dwell amongst us, even as we are immersed in our deeply human and sometimes impure lives. In Hassidic thought, the desert is used to describe a place void of Godliness;[27] the Mishkan shows that Hashem will dwell with us, even as we are in a desert state of impurity, devoid of Godliness.

Abarbanel’s commentary even further expresses the pnimuit ideas of the Mishkan. His view that the Mishkan served to bring down Hashem’s presence as it was brought down on Mount Sinai fits well with the Midrash’s understanding that Hashem’s presence was brought back into the world at Mount Sinai and the Mishkan functions as a solidification and continuation of that process. He also notes that donations of Benei Yisrael were entirely voluntary both in the size and substance. On a psychological level, this method of donations would bring out Benei Yisrael’s endearment for God that in turn would cause them to be more endeared to God. The purpose of God coming into our lives is to aid us to forming a relationship with Him and this relationship between God and His people can be understood as mutual endearment. By giving their donations in a way that increases mutual endearment between them and God, Benei Yisrael engage in their relationship with God, which is the ultimate fulfillment of bringing God into our lives.

Abarbanel understands the Mishkan as a symbol that God is in the physical world, with total involvement in the details of our lives. This echoes the very same notion brought forth by the Midrash Tanchuma and in Hassidic thought. The details regarding the Mishkan come to help us internalize the understanding that Hashem is with us. The Mishkan and all its details provide lessons teaching us how to make our very own Mikdash, by bringing God into the very mundane nature of our lives so that “V’shachanti bi-tocham,” Hashem can have His wish and reside amongst His people.

 

[1] As defined by Rashi 25:2

[2] Exodus 25:2

[3] Exodus 25:8

[4] Rashbam to Exodus 25:8

[5] Exodus 29:43

[6] Sforno to Exodus 25:8

[7] Rashi to Exodus 25:8

[8] ibid

[9] Ramban to Exodus 25:8

[10] Ibn Ezra to Exodus 25:8

[11] Hilchos Beis Bechira 1:1

[12] Ohr Hachayim to Exodus 25:8

[13] Abarbanel on the Torah to Exodus 25:8

[14] Exodus 25:2

[15] Psalms 103:19

[16] Medrish Tanchuma 1:35

[17] Exodus19:20

[18] Song od Songs 5:1

[19] For the full text of Basi L’Gani 5711/1951 see: http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/2333961/jewish/The-Rebbes-First-Ma

amar.htm

[20] Basi L’Gani 5710 / 1950

[21] Kunteres Ha’inyanos Shel Toras Hachassidus, or its translation, “On the Essence of Hassidut.” See sections 1 and 2. This Hassidic discourse explains how Hassidut acts as Pnimiut of Torah in depth.

[22] While Sod has an element of Pnimiut, as it reveals the hidden, secret meaning, Hassidut is the “Pnimiut of the Pnimiut,” understanding the underlying message behind the verse, which permeates all four interpretations.

[23] See in The Keys to Kabbalah, the section in Practical Kabbalah titled “Torah Study” by Nissan Dovid Dubov for a discussion of different methods of interpreting Torah in relation to Hassidic teaching, found on Chabad.org

[24] Basi L’Gani 5711 / 1951

[25] Exodus 29:43

[26] Likkutei Torah: Vayikra – “Adam Viyakriv Mikem” This Hassidic discourse actually discusses how we can learn from the service of the Bet Hamikdash for our own service of God, in “coming towards Him.”

[27] Likkutei Torah: Ani Ledodi Roshei Teivos Elul, Section 2. Hassidut takes this idea from a verse in Jeremiah (2:2) that a desert is “an unsown land, a place “where no man has dwelt” (ibid 2:6), which is understood as a place outside the sphere of holiness.