Parashat Pekudei: Why is a Tabernacle Necessary?

Parashat Pekudei concludes the book of Exodus (Shemot) and also concludes a series of parashot dealing with the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. The particulars of the Tabernacle have given rise to many questions, which are discussed extensively in the Talmud and other sources. But before all these specifics, two fundamental questions must be addressed.

The first question relates to the time of the Tabernacle’s construction. Why was the Tabernacle erected in the wilderness, a seemingly inopportune time and setting for such an endeavor?

The Song of the Sea includes the following passage: “Until Your people cross, O God, until the people You gained cross over. You will bring them and plant them on Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, the sanctuary of God, which Your hands established (Shemot 15:16-17). From these verses there would appear to be a planned order to things: First they cross the sea, then the wilderness; then they enter the Land of Israel, and only at the very end of this process do they build the Sanctuary. But in reality, the Tabernacle was built almost immediately after the parting of the sea. As early as the first year after the Exodus, the people received the command to build it, and at the beginning of the second year it was already dedicated.

To be sure, a distinction can ostensibly be made between the Tabernacle and the “sanctuary” mentioned in the verse. Nevertheless it would seem that the Tabernacle should have been built at least fifty years later, after entry into the Land, the conclusion of the wars of conquest, and the apportionment of the Land.

The second question, which is more general, pertains to the very need for a tabernacle or a sanctuary in the first place. When a person is moved to do something for God’s glory, the best and most straightforward way for him to do this would seem to be on his own, in the manner that benefits him. Indeed, that is precisely what was done before the Temple was built, even when the Tabernacle was already in existence, when the use of bamot (ritual platforms or altars) was permitted.

The truth is that bama is less complicated than the Tabernacle in every respect, and it is also much more accessible and personal; anyone can use it. In reality where bamot are permitted , one who wants to bring a korban to God – and not just to worship Him through prayer and the observance of His commandments – does not need to rely on the Priests, nor does he need to travel a great distance. He himself can build an earthen altar or a stone altar anywhere, even in his own yard, and then he can bring a korbanot and draw himself closer to God. Such service of God is direct and simple.

It appears that the essence of divine worship in general and korbanot in particular, does not require a tabernacle and could have remained a private matter, for each individual to pursue personally. Consider the view of Nahmanides (Vayikra 1:9), for example, who points out that korbanot existed in ancient times and are not necessarily dependent on a tabernacle or a sanctuary. Even if we do not take into account our sages’ interpretation that Adam brought a korban (Massekhet Avoda Zara 8a), the Torah says explicitly that Cain and Abel brought korbanot at the dawn of man’s existence. Apparently the drive to bring korbanot is intrinsic to the human race. Every human being – not just the Jew – is entitled, according to halakha, to bring a korban to God, anywhere anytime. We the Jewish people are the only ones who have been limited in this regard, in that we can only bring korbanot in the Tabernacle or in the Temple.

Instead of each person building his own bama, we were commanded to build the Tabernacle, which, in many respects, is a formidable and complicated task. Here, again, the question is: Why is this necessary? What is it that can be found in the Tabernacle but not at a bama?

Two Ways of Serving God

Apparently, there is indeed a difference between korbanot brought at a bama and korbanot brought in the Sanctuary, a phenomenon unique to Israel. There are two different ways of serving God. Non-Jews who wish to serve God may bring korbanot anywhere, whereas the Jewish people were assigned a different way of serving God, in which they require a Temple.

The first way in which one can serve God – the way that is open to anyone – is on the level of the individual. One can lead his own life and try from within himself to achieve as much as possible in the service to God. If his “heart moves him” (Shemot 25:2), as we have seen, he can also make a private offering. If one gets up in the morning, sees the sunrise, and feels he must do something special for God, he can follow his instinct and bring a korban. Likewise, one who feels he has committed a sin and needs atonement can visit the nearest bama and bring a korban as well. Whether it is a thanksgiving offering or an atonement offering, this offering is part of a person’s divine service as an individual.

This service, which is available to Jews and non-Jews alike, can certainly bring a person close to God, but has an inherent limit – the person remains within his limitations as a human being. This service derives from an individual’s personal life, and therefore, even though it has no restrictions, neither in the time nor in the place of the korban, the limitations inherent in this kind of divine service prevent one from breaking through to a higher level of intimacy with God.

The other way of serving God – the way that is unique to the Jewish people – is based on the principle that the individual does not remain where he is, but, rather is encouraged to transcend the limits and dimensions of his personality. In the case of the Jewish people, the korbanot and divine service in general are connected with the need for the Tabernacle or Temple.  The Temple is not merely an instrument to enable man to approach God; it is also a two-way portal, a passage between the world and God. To be sure, there is the aspect of man turning upward to God from below in the Temple as well; but there is also the aspect of God turning downward from above. God dwells in the Temple, revealing Himself through it, as it says “I will speak to you from above the Ark – cover” (Shemot 25:22).

These two ways of serving God are interconnected. In order for God to reveal Himself in the Temple, there must be an awakening of Israel from below. The place where God reveals Himself is the place where all eyes are raised to Him, a kind of beacon for religious devotion. God’s revelation in the Temple does not happen automatically; it requires an awakening of the will, a certain element of longing. When such collective will does not exist – whether this is intentional or the result of some constraint – the portal remains closed.

The act of building a house for God may seem illogical at first. After all, “the whole world is full of His glory!” What is the point of establishing a physical place and instructing God to remain there? The truth is that while God is present everywhere, not every place contains a portal to revelation the likes of which we described above. In order for an earthly Temple to fulfill its purpose, our hearts must be open to it. When are hearts are not open to it, even the Temple cannot help us interact with God.

Forming a Center

The aspirations of a large community of people are channeled through the Temple – not the personal longing of one individual, but the longing of the entire community of Israel. When the aspirations are concentrated together, this forms something that transcends the limits of the individual’s personal will, and the Temple then becomes a place where God can come from above to dwell down below. From the combined aspirations of the community springs something that is not always visible to the eye. When the right connection is formed among the Jews, there is a twofold, threefold or ten thousand fold magnification of what lies within each one of them. Batteries can be joined in such a way that each one remains separate, but they can also be joined in such a way that each battery adds energy to the whole, strengthening it. This whole is necessary so that we do not remain in a situation where each individual stands separately, so that the spiritual entity called “Israel” can continue to exist.

The standards of holiness required of the Jewish people as a whole are higher and stricter than those required of the individuals, even if his heart has moved him. In the Temple, as in the Tabernacle, we attempt to raise the individual’s standard to an entirely different level. Instead of the bama, which does not become invested with sanctity of place, a Sanctuary is built, around which the complete structure of the Holy and the Holy of Holies is formed. The Temple, which includes communal korbanot, was created in order to induce individuals to aspire to far more than they would when alone, to enable them to accomplish what they cannot on their own.  When someone says, “What I have is sufficient for me,” this is a sign that he is still stuck on the level of his private bama, whereas in the Temple he must transcend his own aspirations.  The further he wants to go in the realm of the holy, the more is required of him in terms of purity, atonement and ascent, level after level.

The Tabernacle and the Temple radiate inward, to the sacred, but at the same time exert an influence even on what is most profane. From the moment the Tabernacle is erected, it is meaningful not only when one is inside it, but even when one is just wandering in the wilderness. From the moment the Tabernacle is erected, the whole area around it receives a center, a focal point around which various camps are formed. The Levite camp and the Israelite camp assumed sacred significance, and as a result, it became forbidden for certain people to be inside them. Once a Tabernacle exists, even one’s own private tent is no longer what it used to be.

The Urgency of Erecting the Tabernacle

As we have seen, the proper order of things should dictate that only when everything is already in place – they have conquered the Land, appointed a king, and wiped out the Amalekites – is it possible to build the Temple. Such an order can only be actualized once the people arrive in the land of Canaan. In truth, after the People of Israel crossed the Red Sea, if they had acted properly, the construction of the Tabernacle/Temple would likely have been a thing of the distant future.

However, the construction of the Temple was not just a matter of convenience. If that were the case, the People of Israel would have postponed its construction four hundred years in anticipation of a period of quiet and calm – the optimal time to build the Temple. Instead, the construction of the Tabernacle began almost immediately.

The reason this happened is that after the sin of the Golden Calf the reality faced by the People of Israel posed a great dancer to them. If they had entered the Land immediately and begun to become involved in all that entry into the land entails, it might have been possible to postpone the construction of the Temple. But the people faced forty years of wandering in the wilderness (at least according to those who maintain that the sin of the spies occurred before the construction of the Tabernacle), and during that time they could not be left in a scattered, state, wandering about in an entirely individualistic manner. Sometimes, if one is not firmly raised higher than he aspired to climb, he is liable to descend much lower than he could have anticipated.  The condition of the People of Israel at the time dictated the need for something that lay beyond their own spiritual dimensions. They needed an element that would raise them higher; for otherwise, they may not have reached the stage of entering the Land at all.

When it became necessary to warn the People of Israel not to sacrifice to demons, this was a sure sign that it was necessary to build the Tabernacle. In light of this, the construction of the Tabernacle became more than just an optional convenience; it became a necessity.

There is an adage that appears in various forms in many languages:  “If you can’t get through from above, try from below.” But what should be done in the opposite situation, if you can’t get through from below? Following the same pattern, it would seem that if you can’t get through from below, you must get through from above. If the usual route is blocked, you must find another route; you must leap much higher than you had originally intended. In such a situation, one must ascend into holiness, in a way that is not at all commensurate with one’s present level.

The Silent Majority

The process that ultimately necessitates the “early” construction of the Tabernacle begins with the sin of the Golden Calf. When Moses descended Mount Sinai and said “Whoever is for God, join me!” (Shemot 32:26), all the Levites rallied to him, and they killed many people – three thousand altogether. But this number is a small fraction of the total population of the People of Israel at the time. Assuming that these three thousand people represented those who created the Golden Calf and its hardcore followers, where was the remainder of the People of Israel?

It is clear that the majority of the people were not involved in creating the calf. If that is so, what happened? Apparently, once the calf was created, a large percentage of the people began to follow the calf along with everyone else. Moses was absent, and someone suggested that a calf should take his place. To be sure, the calf was not exactly like Moses, but this was an emergency; the calf would have to suffice. In this situation, even the seemingly levelheaded masses were drawn into the allure of the calf.

The same question arises when Jeroboam sets up calves in Dan and Bethel. What happened to all the good Jews who for so many years had gone to bring korbanot in the Temple? What happened to all those who learned Torah from Samuel, from David and Solomon?  Until Jeroboam’s time, there was a long period in which idolatry became taboo, King Saul took the first major steps, clearing the country of all sorts of idolatry, and David and Solomon continued on this path after him. This period of devoutness lasted for a relatively long time; yet when the calves are made, there is no popular rebellion. Everyone simply swept along.

The reality, then, is that whenever there is a calf, there is a crowd – including many average individuals – that is ready to follow it. If that is the case, the Temple can no longer be delayed; it must be constructed immediately. In order to avoid a spiritual vacuum, in order to allow God to “dwell in their midst,” the people must fulfill the command to “make Me a sanctuary” (Shemot 28:8) – precisely in the wilderness, and precisely during the forty years of wandering.

This essay is adapted from the chapter on Parashat Pikudei, from Rabbi Steinsaltz’s new book, Talks on the Parasha, now available from Koren Publishers.