Rabbi David Walk
When I was growing up, Jews either went to shul or temple. In my family, we didn't talk about beit keneset or shteibel or chavura or, even, synagogue. All we had was shul, which had separate seating and temple, where men and women, theoretically, sat together. I say 'theoretically' because whenever I went to the temple in town, it was for a bar mitzvah, and I sat with all my friends, who, at that point in my life, were all guys. But when I read the Hebrew sign over the entrance to my shul, it was called Beit Medrash Beit Yisrael. Well, from then on there was no going back to the original simplicity of just two words and, soon, I didn't want to sit with guys. But those original two terms still resonate in my head. The word shul came, of course, from Yiddish and meant a school, a place of study. What does 'temple' mean? It comes from the Latin templum, and meant a sacred place designated (or 'cut off' from the Greek temenos) by an augur, who was a priest who interpreted the will of the gods for the community. It was a special zone aligned with the points of the compass to receive communication from the gods. So, we (the nominally orthodox) davened in a school and they (every other Jew) davened in a communications installation. I think that 'communications installation' makes more sense, but, unlike the pagans, with us the communications go from us heavenward.
In this week's Torah reading we are also presented with two terms for the building project God was demanding. Here's the command: Have them build a sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). We have the basis for the two names by which this structure will be called throughout the ages; mikdash (or, later, beit hamikdash), sanctuary and mishkan, dwelling place. I want to explore the significance of both names, but before I do, I must mention that many commentaries avoid the issue by explaining that mishkan was the name before the permanent structure was built in Yerushalayim, which was called mikdash. Others add that the movable structure in the desert was called ohel (or tent), and mishkan was the appellation for the semi-permanent building in Shilo.
Initially, I'd like to suggest that these two terms describe a dual reality about this building, which goes way beyond the convenient use of these terms to delineate different historic stages. A mikdash suggests a special precinct, holy, separate and different from everything else around it. This sanctuary domain engenders awe and solemnity. Its mere presence prompts trepidation and, even, terror of whatever unknowns reside within. On the other hand, a mishkan stimulates feelings of neighborliness, a pleasant addition to the community. This is similar to the presence of God described by the term Shechina, which implies warmth and affection. Mishkan is more about warm fuzzies and mikdash is more cold pricklies.
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein adds to this view by pointing out that here in our parsha when they were building the mishkan the Jews are very happy to contribute and participate in the construction project. It's pointed out later (chapter 36) that the Jews actually oversubscribed the necessary donations, and Moshe had to stop the giving. How often does that happen to synagogue building funds? However, when we read the accounts of the building project in the book of Kings, we hear about Shlomo Hamelech imposing taxes. There is also a forced levy of 30,000 workers who must go to Lebanon to cut and transport the cedars required for the magnificent edifice. All this effort generated a bureaucracy which became anathema to later generations. There is even a Midrash (Midrash Sochar Tov on Psalm 24) which castigates Shlomo for his arrogance and pride in this splendid building project. But there's more. Another essay by Rav Lichtenstein makes a powerful point by juxtaposing two famous verses: 'For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being', & 'For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good (Psalms 122:8 & 9).' He doesn't say it, but I believe he means that the mishkan is family and the mikdash is a national shrine. Both are important but only one inspires love and warmth.
So far, we have compared and contrasted mishkan and mikdash, but the Meshech Chachmah (Reb Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843–1926) conceived a wonderful notion about how these two concepts complement each other: Do not imagine that the Temple and the Mishkan are holy in and of themselves, heaven forbid. God dwells among His children, and if 'they, like men, have violated the covenant' (Hoshea 6), then all holiness is removed from them– 'Robbers have entered and profaned it' (Nedarim 62a). Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute, and he emerged unharmed (Gittin 56b), for its holiness had been removed. Moreover, even the Tablets, 'inscribed by God,' are not holy in and of themselves, but rather only for you…Ultimately, there is nothing in the world that is intrinsically holy, worthy of service and submission; only God Himself, and only He is worthy of praise and worship. Everything else that is holy is so because of God's command to build a Mishkan, for offerings to God (comment on Exodus 32:19). God is where we allow Divinity to enter. I think that we can read our verse like this: Make this precinct holy by inviting Me to dwell amongst you.
All of these ideas are precious, but I love the proposal of the Meshech Chachma. And it's possible that the concept originated with our ancestors. When the Jews crossed the Sea they sang: This is my God v'anveihu (15:3). That last word can mean many things, but one suggestion is 'provide housing for God'. It may be daunting, but we should want God in our midst. The amazing promise God makes in our verse is: If you build it, I will come.