Historically, the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash were focal points in our religious lives, and quite rightly. The Jewish People would journey from near and far for the Holidays, and there were all manner of offerings and rituals the people would partake in. They were the seat of justice, with the highest courts headquartered there. They feature prominently in almost all of our prayers.
How could Judaism survive, let alone thrive, without these central sites and rites?
It’s an essential question that speaks to the heart of what Judaism is; it matters. But if Judaism has lingered on long after those holy sites are gone; if Judaism has persisted for the overwhelming majority of its history without these holy places, then perhaps it was never about the bricks – it was about the people and their commitment. The bricks could break, but the people and their commitment would not.
It’s all encoded in the very first instruction to build a communal holy place:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:8)
God is incorporeal and doesn’t need a place to live; God is the place of all things and is in all places already. The important part isn’t simply the place; but what the place does – it helps us experience and feel like God dwells among us – וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the very fact that the Mishkan was built in the heart and center of the camp illustrates God’s closeness to our lives.
It’s not the form of the place we make for God that matters; it’s the substance – the very concept of the entire Mishkan project speaks to the notion that sanctity is portable – that there isn’t a single “holy place”; there are only the places we choose to make holy. If that place wasn’t just for God, of course we could survive without the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash. If we built it there, we could build it here. If we built it once, we could build it again. Our ancestors could do it in a grand temple, and they could do it in a dark cellar on the run from danger.
The Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash were quite literally public works in every way – paid for by every citizen and member of the public, monuments representing the dedication to what we can build together, carving out a dedicated space for God – which God promises to reciprocate in a mutual covenant – וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. If we make the space, God will be there.
As the Kotzker famously quipped, where does God dwell? Wherever we let Him in.
If we make the space, God will be there.