The Purpose of the Mishkan
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
There’s an expression in modern Hebrew called chutz la’aretz. It literally means “outside of the land” and refers to everywhere in the world besides Israel. That is part of the Jewish mentality. It’s not “us” and “them” in a competitive or snobbish sense. It’s just that there is Israel, and then there is everywhere and everyone else.
One of the instances that best expressed this truth was the temple. The first Jewish temple, the Mishkan, looked a lot like other religious shrines of the ancient world. We prostrated ourselves, brought animal offerings, and wore elaborate priestly costumes. But, despite superficial appearances, the truth is that the Mishkan had nothing in common with the popular idolatry of the time. Placating an angry, lustful deity was as far removed from Jewish consciousness as possible.
Back in 1312 BCE, the spiritual lives of gentile individuals and societies revolved around sites of idol worship and their immediate surroundings. These sites provided venues for the manipulation and appeasement of a pantheon of supernatural beings. Self-mutilation, human sacrifice, ritual defecation, rape, and torture were not uncommon ways of displaying fealty to stone- or wood-hewn idols. These and other practices were the “abominations of Egypt and Canaan” referred to by the Torah and documented by modern historians and archaeologists from around the world today. Needless to say, they did not translate into leading a moral life.
But morality wasn’t idolatry’s primary goal. Survival was. Ancients believed that if the gods were not pleased, life would be very unpleasant. If the gods were satisfied by the worship that they received, they would bestow whatever blessings they could. Essentially, it was a business relationship ensuring mutual provision of goods. When temple worship was over, worshippers could breathe a sigh of relief and go back to their everyday lives in the hopes that the gods would basically leave them alone.
In contrast, Jewish society did not revolve around the Mishkan at all. For the Jew, the most important place of worship was in his own heart, his own home, and in the caring, moral society he was responsible to develop and maintain. The verse commanding the building of the Mishkan explains, “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
The verse doesn’t say “so that I may dwell in it” - God had no need for our worship. The purpose of the Mishkan was not to provide God with some absurd, temporary ego-boost. Rather, the verse speaks in the plural: “so that I may dwell among them”. He wanted to give us the joy of a relationship with Him. The Mishkan services reminded us to live our lives in such a way that God would feel at home with us, in our lives, and in our hearts. Later, a more elaborate, permanent structure called the Beis HaMikdash did the same.
Ironically, this was proven best when the first, and later the second, Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. As long as its purpose was being fulfilled, nothing could touch the it, but when we chose to become apathetic to the vibrancy and centrality of our relationship with God, services in the Beis HaMikdash became meaningless. The Jewish temples weren’t destroyed so much as they died when the flames of our spiritual commitment, passion, and growth grew too weak to sustain them.
Today we can change that. We can step out of the rat race and reignite our spiritual identities, our Jewish identities. Instead of worshipping transient things like idols and dollar bills, we can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash in our hearts. Torah learning, prayer, mitzvos - there are so many ways to create a vibrant, meaningful relationship with God. Let’s start now.