This week I’m going to talk about—what else?—the משכן and its purpose. The parasha starts with the commandment to build משכן:
And Rashi understands this not as a commandment just for the moment, but a halacha for all generations:
And this is in fact brought down as halacha:
So let’s go over the history of the משכן and its successor, the בית המקדש. Before the משכן was built, there was still a centralized place of worship at הר סיני:
And in fact, there was an אהל מועד, a place to “meet” with ה׳, before the משכן was built, only it was outside the camp, far from the centralized מזבח:
And what was in this אהל מועד?
And in the second year at הר סיני they inaugurated the משכן:
And what happened after that? The mishna in זבחים goes through the history after that, along with the relevant halachot of sacrifices:
So we have this pattern that when the ארון is together with the מזבח, then we have a “מקדש”, and עבודה outside that is forbidden. When there is no מקדש, then עבודה is still possible, but it is no longer centralized. We’re missing something important. There is much to be said about the difference between the משכן and the בית המקדש, but I won’t go into that now. The question now is what does that centralization mean, what does it represent?
There is a discussion among the commentators whether the משכן was לכתחילה, part of ה׳'s original plan for בני ישראל, or only a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. The simple understanding of the text is that it was intended all along; in אז ישיר we read (שמות טו:יז) מקדש ה׳ כוננו
And Rabbi Shimon Schwab in מעין בית השועבה brings the Rashi that Yaakov planted trees for the Mishkan when he went down to Egypt:
But the Seforno argues very strongly that having a physical building is not the ideal:
Whether or not the building of the centralized משכן was לכתחילה, the fact remains that the physical building is not the point; when it is built, the שכינה is not in the building but in ourselves—שכנתי בתוכם. As ירמיהו says:
What does it mean, בלבבי משכן אבנה? The משכן, as we said, brought the ארון הברית and the מזבח together. But really there were three classes of כלים that were brought together, and each had a זר, a crown:
In the words of the mishna, the כתר שם טוב is not greater than the other כתרים, it is עולה על גביהן. Just like the world as a whole depends on the three pillars of תורה, עבודה and גמילות חסדים, so too does our identity (which is what שם really means) depend on our embodying those three aspects. And the משכן with its three crowned כלים symbolizes the coming together of those three things. Each one individually is important; the synthesis of all of them creates something greater that allows the שכינה to dwell among us.