Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, Shayna Yehudit bat Avraham Manes and Rivka, the refuah shlaimah of Devorah bat Chana, Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka and Shoshana Elka bat Etel Dina, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The most celebrated pasuk (verse) in our parasha is, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary (Mikdash) and I will dwell in their midst.” (Sefer Shemot 25:8, this and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) It is followed by a great many verses that specify every possible detail of the construction and constitutive elements of the Mishkan (portable desert Mikdash). Yet, as the Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael notes, the very act of constructing a Mikdash for Hashem is quite problematic: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst;” why was this ever stated? After all, was it not already said, (Sefer Yirmiyahu 23:24) ‘Behold I fill the heavens and the earth?’ [And, therefore, how can any dwelling contain Hashem?]” (Translation and brackets my own)
The Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael teaches us that the idea of building a Mikdash for Hashem seemingly makes no sense. On the surface, at least, this appears to be the intent of Isaiah’s famous declaration: “So says the L-rd, ‘the heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool; which is the house that you will build for Me, and which is the place of My rest?’” (Sefer Yeshayahu 66:1)
The great Lithuanian Torah sage, Rav Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), was acutely aware of the conceptual challenges posed by the mitzvah to build a Mikdash for Hashem. He addressed them by emphasizing the later part of our pasuk wherein it states, “and I will dwell in their midst,” and suggested the following revolutionary interpretation:
Behold, there is no doubt whatsoever, that the very idea of the holy (hakodesh), the sanctuary (hamikdash) and the in-dwelling (shriyat shechinato) of the Holy One blessed be He refers to man, himself. [This is the case,] for if he sanctifies himself in the proper manner through the fulfillment of all the mitzvot…then he, himself, will be the sanctuary of Hashem (hu atzmo hamikdash mammash) and within him will be Hashem, may His Name be blessed. (Nefesh HaChaim, I:4, this, and the following translations and brackets my own)
The power of Rav Chaim’s extraordinary chiddush (novel idea) cannot be overestimated: If we sanctify ourselves through the performance of the mitzvot, then we will be the ultimate Mikdash of Hashem. Rav Chaim bases his reasoning upon a verse from Jeremiah, and a well-known statement of our Sages, as found in the Midrash Aggadah:
[As proof for what I have suggested,] we have the text from Sefer Yirmiyahu: “…The Temple of the L-rd, the Temple of the L-rd, the Temple of the L-rd are they.” (7:4) This is similar in kind to the utterance of our Sages, may their memory be blessed, “and I will dwell in their midst” – “It does not say, ‘in it’ [i.e. the physical Mikdash,] rather it says, “in their midst,” [i.e. literally within them.]
At this juncture in Rav Chaim’s presentation, it appears as if the physical structure of the Mikdash, or even of the Beit Hamikdash, is well-nigh superfluous, since it is superseded by the Jewish people, themselves. A careful reading of Rav Chaim’s next words seem to support precisely this approach:
In addition, according to our manner of explanation, one should not think that the essential purpose of My [G-d’s] intention [regarding the commandment to construct the Mikdash] is the creation of the physical Mikdash itself (hamikdash hachitzoni).
What, then, is the rationale inherent in the construction of the Mikdash? For Rav Chaim, it is nothing less than the creation of the greatest heuristic device the world has ever known:
But you should know that My [Hashem’s] overarching purpose and desire regarding the Mikdash’s construction and all its vessels, is solely to indicate to you [the Jewish people individually, and as a people,] that you should model yourselves after these physical entities and reconstruct yourselves and all of your actions, so that they will be as proper to Me as the building of the Mikdash and all its [sanctified] vessels. [For in truth,] all of you are holy, fitting and prepared (kedoshim, re’uyim u’muchanim) for My holy presence to literally dwell within you (lehashrot shechinati b’tochchachem mammash). This, then, is the true meaning of, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary (Mikdash) and I will dwell in their midst.”
Rav Chaim’s message is unbelievably inspiring: We, the Jewish people, are holy and fitting for the Schechinah to dwell amongst us, for in truth, we are His Mikdash. With Hashem’s help, may we rededicate ourselves to His holy Torah and the heart-felt fulfillment of His mitzvot, so that we will be ready to be His Mikdash soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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