The purpose of the mitzva of building the Miskan is something that Chazal and the commentators who followed them have puzzled over for generations. When explaining this mitzva the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzva 95) posits that the existence of the Mishkan provides an ideal environment not for Hashem, but for Am Yisrael. The Chinuch conceives the Mishkan as a place where Am Yisrael can train itself to a state of spiritual perfection and thereby be worthy of appreciating Divine reward. It is not sufficient to think about Avodat Hashem. In order to properly serve G-d one must constantly be doing. Essentially, by having a designated place of worship, strictly defined by hierarchy, ritual, ceremony and decorum, we are given the opportunity to fully develop as G-d’s nation. The purpose then is not to provide Hashem with a place to dwell, but to supply us with a setting within which we can grow.
According to the Chinuch’s approach, we might have difficulty in understanding the meaning of the passuk “And you will make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within it (literally within you) (25:8). The Abarbanel understands the purpose of the Mishkan as to provide a place where the Shechina would rest, just as it had rested on Har Sinai. By having this tangible sign of G-d’s presence amongst the nation the continued presence of Hashgacha, Divine Providence, would also be demonstrated. Interestingly, the Abarbanel, like the Chinuch, views the Mishkan as a tool for creating the proper religious thought pattern. Only the goals are different. For the Chinuch there is a global task of embedding the individual with the necessary fervor for Avodat Hashem. The Abarbanel sees the goal as embedding a belief in Hashgacha in the world as the goal. (And yes, both use the word “l’hashrish, to embed, when describing their positions).
Hundreds of years later, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch further developed this idea. Rav Hirsch sees two distinct but complimentary concepts at work here, the idea of Mikdash and Mishkan, as expresses in the Hebrew of the passuk above “Vaasu li Mikdash (Sanctuary) v’shachanti (Mishkan) b’tocham. The Mikdash represents man’s attempt to bring sanctity into his personal existence, while the Mishkan represents the good G-d has promised in return for doing so. By consecrating our lives and ourselves to G-d, we merit his involvement in our personal lives and our national existence.
This idea of man having to actively invite Hashem into his world through the construction of the Mikdash finds expression in another related aspect of this construction. In the very beginning of our Parasha the Torah introduces the mitzva in a curious manner. “Speak unto the children of Israel and they will take for me a donation (teruma), from every man who’s heart stirs him to give a voluntary gift you will receive my teruma” (25:2). The passuk here seems to stress the idea of the individual gift, as opposed to an organized fundraising drive. The Abarbanel certainly understands it in this manner, and offers a number of reasons why it should be so. Firstly, the building of the Mishkan should be a popular effort, and not one limited to the Nessiim and other members of the elite. Secondly, the building of the Mishkan was a volunteer effort, not one where participation was mandated (unlike the mitzva of Machatzit HaShekel, for example). Thirdly, not only was participation not mandatory, it wasn’t even solicited. Whatever people brought was accepted wholeheartedly (though it had to be from the materials required for the building of the Mishkan, as described in the subsequent passukim.).
We find validation to this approach from what, at first glance, seems to be an unlikely source. The Haftora, drawn from the fith and sixth perakim of Sefer Melachim, describes the construction of the first Beit HaMikdash. It would appear to have been chosen because of the similarity that it bears to our Parsha. One speaks of the construction of the Mishkan and the other speaks of the construction of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet it is the contrast, suggests Rav Hirsch, that is the true link between the two. The Beit HaMikdash was built by a conscripted force, which despite the positive conditions under which it labored, can not be compared to an all volunteer army. Added to this is the contrast between the artisans employed to build the Mishkan and those who built the Mikdash. Shlomo spared no effort and no expense in recruiting the finest craftsman via his friend Hiram, king of Tyre. The Mishkan, on the other hand, was built by a talented, enthusiastic but ultimately amateur group, led by Bezalel. Lost is the spirit of volunteerism and giving which was so movingly described by the Abarbanel, replaced by a labor force made up of hired artisans and conscripted laborers. The physical edifice that emerges might be grander, but what of the heart of the place?
The Navi itself seems to be disturbed by all this. Why, asks the Abarbanel, does the Navi recount Hashem’s warning to Shlomo, that the Beit HaMikdash will only endure if he keeps the Mitzvot (6:11-13) precisely in the middle of the description of the building of the Mikdash? (You will have to look this up in the Navi itself. The Haftora ends with these passukim). Would it not have been more appropriate to place them either at the very beginning or the very end? Hashem, apparently, is sending Shlomo a very clear message. Don’t think that all the effort being invested in constructing the Beit HaMikdash will ensure its survival. That is going to depend on the ethical behavior of both Shlomo himself and the nation he leads.
Rav Hirsch is even harsher in his reading of the story. Shlomo is misplacing his priorities, designing a building with space but without spirit. Where is Am Yisrael in the entire story? Why have they not been mobilized to the cause? Why must they be conscripted to build the Beit HaMikdash rather than volunteering of their own volition? Shlomo has fallen into the trap, so common throughout Jewish History and in our own time, of confusing form with substance. The Mishkan might have been a relatively simple affair of boards and curtains, but the personality of the nation, the desire to come reach out to the Divine on the one hand while making the Divine part of their everyday existence on the other made it special. The Beit HaMikdash, however, enters our consciousness on a different level. More grand, perhaps, but also more forlon. It is only by committing to Torah and Mitzvot that ” V’shachanti”, I will dwell within you, the promise of both the parsha and the Haftorah can be fulfilled.