Many have puzzled over the purpose of the Mishkan. Why does God need a house to dwell in, a peculiar tent-like structure furnished with ornate objects? King Solomon himself, charged with building the First Temple in Jerusalem, wondered aloud, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this Temple that I have erected” (1 Melachim 8:27).
The great medieval scholars advance several theories to explain the purpose of the Mishkan (and, by extension, the Beit Hamikdash). For the Ramban, the Mishkan was intended as a permanent reconstruction of the people’s Divine encounter at Mount Sinai, its dazzling gold ornaments reflected the fires upon the Mount Sinai. The Mishkan was a mobile, permanent, model-version of God’s epic Revelation, traveling with the people and lying at the heart of their encampment. For the Seforno, a later, Italian commentator, on the other hand, the Mishkan was a necessary response to the People’s grievous sin of the Golden Calf. They had proved themselves religiously reckless, even idolatrous. So, God withdrew His initial offer that “in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you” (Shemos, 24:18). The Mishkan instead was to be the sole place of worship, a restricted and controlled enough form of religious expression preventing such sinful antics from occurring in the future. The Rambam, in his Guide for the Perplexed, presents a third reason for the Temple. He writes that the Sanctuary, with its priests and animal offerings, merely reflects the trappings of Near Eastern pagan rites (although an eternally binding institution nonetheless). It was a sophisticated “divine ruse,” serving to incorporate some pagan practices into Judaism in order to ensure that the Jewish People at the time would find familiarity in the Torah and thus accept it. Fourthly, for Rabbi Yehuda haLevi, the great Spanish poet, in stark contrast to the Rambam’s historical proposition, the Temple stood as the ‘power-plant’ of the nation, its sacrificial rites almost mystically facilitating and allowing God’s Presence to rest amongst us. (As an aside, this perhaps is why the Rambam, one hundred years later, uses Temple Sacrifices as his centre-piece example in advancing his historical and contextual approach to understanding the mitzvot; namely, in order to directly counter HaLevi’s claim). Such is an overview of some of the most famous answers given to the question as to why we have a Temple.
However, the introduction that the Torah presents us with may perhaps provide us with an idea, at least in the most broadest sense, as to the purpose of building a “house for God” and, shedding light on Judaism’s unique perspective as a whole:
“The Lord spoke to Moshe saying, speak to the People of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. This is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper… And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst…”
Perhaps one of the radical differences between Judaism and idolatry is its focus. In essence, Pagan religions were often self-directed. Man worshipped the stars or the moon purely for himself, to achieve his own needs. He served the gods or the constellations in order, for example, to be bestowed with agricultural plenty, health, or military success (see Guide for the Perplexed, 3:30). Judaism, however, was to be the exact opposite; it is entirely other-focused. That is the key message of the Temple, to donate and give to God, to “take for Me an offering… and to make Me a sanctuary.” It was to be a religion, a set of values and rules, focused entirely on reaching out, on helping man and on helping God, so-to-speak. Judaism’s focus is not so much that we should be the centre of God’s life, so to speak, but that God should be the centre of our lives. That is the idea of the Temple, to build a house for God in the middle of our camp, and to invest ourselves in it, giving of our wealth and time. Judaism’s entire purpose is to step out of ourselves and to give – to help man, and even, radically, to provide God a dwelling within this world. It is not about self-service, but service of the other and of God, for His Own Sake. That, at least in its broadest sense, is the purpose of the Temple, to donate and maintain a House for God in the middle of our camp; to make God and other people the centre of our lives, and not the other way around.