One of the most enigmatic questions of the Torah occurs in this week’s parashah. Why does God need a house? The sedrot at this time of year are concerned with the furnishings of the Mikdash or the sanctuary at the centre of the Israelite camp. The Torah lavishes much detail on the dimensions of the sanctuary, the materials to be used and the proper ways to offer up sacrifices.
There is much detail but little explanation for the purpose of the sanctuary. The only explanation occurs in Exodus 25:8 “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The meaning may have been evident to the Children of Israel but to later generations, the intention and objective of building a dedicated sanctuary to God remains an enigma. Why does God, who is incorporeal and transcendent, need a sacred dwelling place? The verse raises more questions than it answers.
Similarly puzzled by the language of the verse, Rashi, the medieval French commentator on the Torah, offers a brief explanation. “They shall make for My Name, a house of holiness.” Embedded in Rashi’s explanation is an insight into the Torah’s evolutionary conception of God. In Exodus 25:8, God is thought to move about the sanctuary and to occupy the mikdash, specifically the space between the two keruvim which sit atop the Ark. The function of the sanctuary is to provide a home for God’s presence to dwell.
Later in the Tanach, the purpose of the Sanctuary changes from God’s abode to a structure for housing the tablets which God gave to Moses. God’s relationship to the Mikdash changes as well; God no longer is depicted as a corporeal being capable of movement; as is suggested in Leviticus 26:12, “I shall move about amongst you” (v’hithalachti b’tochachem), instead God is perceived as an abstract presence.
The purpose of the Mikdash and God’s relationship to the Mikdash are treated differently later in the Tanach. There, the Tanach teaches that only God’s name exists in the Mishkan. God does not reveal God’s full self in the Mikdash, only the knowledge that God exists. No longer does God need a Mikdash, as God dwells in heaven. The Mikdash is transformed, it is now a House of Worship for all of God’s people to offer their prayers and sacrifices. In the Book of Kings we read about Solomon’s promise to the Elders of Israel “I have built the House for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel; and I have set a place there for the Ark, containing the covenant which the Lord made with our fathers when He brought them out of the Land of Israel.” (I Kings 8:20-21)
Rashi teaches that God is transcendent, wholly other from human activities, but the Mikdash is a House of Holiness meant to carry people to emulate God’s ways. At their best our synagogues, as in the days of the Mishkan, inspire us to find and live God’s ways of holiness.
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is a member of New North London Synagogue