By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“Make for me a Sanctuary and I will dwell within your midst” (Sh’mot 25:8).
The verse above should look strange to anyone following Jewish history in the Land of Israel over the past century. Everyone knows that the Beit HaMikdash is supposed to be in a very specific location. The Beit HaMikdash could not be situated in just any city, or even moved a meter in any direction! Ever since the mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini incited Arabs to attack the Jews in the Arab Uprising of 5689 (1929), through the recent al-Aqsa Intifada, the Jewish–Arab conflict in Israel can be boiled down to several hundred square meters on Temple Mount.
Yet, in our parashah, the Jewish people are commanded to erect the Mishkan, a mobile temple that can be here one day and there another. Why could the Mishkan be a mobile structure, while the Beit HaMikdash had to be situated at a very specific location?
To understand this, we will consider two main sources. The first discusses the changes in the Mishkan’s status throughout the generations, while the second deals with the sanctity of the Mishkan’s location.
The Mishnah (Zevachim 14) briefly surveys the Mishkan’s history in the Land of Israel to ascertain when bamot were permitted. At certain times when the Mishkan was standing, it was permitted to bring certain sacrifices on bamot — the name for an altar outside of the Mishkan — while at other times this was forbidden. During three periods, bamot were forbidden: in the desert from the time the Mishkan was established through entry to the Land of Israel and encampment at Gilgal; during the 369 years the Mishkan stood at Shiloh; and since the building of the Beit HaMikdash in King Solomon’s time. Before this time, and during the intermediary periods, bamot were permitted.
The source for the prohibition of bamot in Shiloh and Jerusalem is the verse: “because you have not yet come to the resting place [menuchah] or to the heritage [nachalah]” (Devarim 12:9); the Mishnah explains menuchah as a reference to Shiloh, and nachalah as a reference to Jerusalem. The term menuchah describes a temporary period of sanctity resting in one area for several hundred years, but not because this is its destined place. In contrast, Jerusalem is nachalah because of the “fixed nature of its sanctity and its eternal existence.” (Peirush HaMishnah, Rambam Zevachim 14:8).
Who Determines Sanctity: G-d or The Jewish People?
Indeed, the sanctity of the site of the Beit HaMikdash is everlasting, even after its destruction. The Rambam (Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 6:14–16) stresses that the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash (in the context of the mitzvot tied to it) differs from the sanctity of the Land of Israel (vis-à-vis Shemittah, ma’aserot, etc.). While the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash stems from the “Divine Presence, which is never nullified,” the obligation of the Land of Israel in “the Sabbatical year and tithes is not due to its being conquered by many [Joshua and olei Mitzrayim].
When the Land was wrested from [the Jews’] hands, the conquest was voided and it was exempt from a biblical obligation of tithes and the Sabbatical year, since it is not [considered] the Land of Israel.” Later on, parts of the Land were sanctified in early Second Temple times (olei Bavel). Since this was not accomplished through a military conquest, but rather civilian settlement, this sanctity persists. According to these sources, it would seem that the Mishkan is sacred due to the Divine Presence, while the Jewish people are the ones sanctifying the Land of Israel.
However, this, too, is not simple. Nowhere in Tanach do we see King David receiving a prophecy regarding the exact location the Beit HaMikdash should be built. There are various traditions brought down by our Sages that it was the Jewish people who decided that the “place that G-d will choose” is Temple Mount in Jerusalem—and implemented by King David. This is in contrast to other decisions made based on prophecy or consultation with the urim v’tumim, which were far less fateful for the Jews’ future. On the other hand, it is clear that with all due respect to the Jews’ conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel, had we conquered or settled in Uganda, the mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel would not apply.
Similarities and Differences
It seems we can explain this disparity as follows: the same fundamental principle, which is also a basic tenet of Judaism, holds true for both types of sanctity. Sanctity is the product of a joint effort, of both G-d and the Jewish people. Redemption cannot arrive without both partners contributing their share. It’s not that G-d can’t save us on His own; it’s just that this is the whole purpose of G-d’s creation of the world, so that human beings will take an active part in its rectification (as the Ramchal explains at length in Da’at Tevunot). Yet, these are still two separate systems. The Beit HaMikdash is mostly G-dly; it is the main pipeline that brings down all G-dly abundance to the world. Our ability to make an impact is only on a very low level, with physical (but vital) vessels, which receive this abundance. However, working the Land of Israel’s soil is primarily physical, while G-d’s blessing, though critical, is hidden.
As such, the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash could technically rest anywhere, since G-d’s glory fills the entire world. However, the point of connection between heaven and earth can be formed only when the Jewish people — G-d’s representatives in the world — identify the site and erect the Beit HaMikdash there. In contrast, the Land of Israel’s sanctity cannot appear just anywhere, as was the case with the Mishkan, since here the contribution of the Jewish people, who can fully fulfill their role only in the Land of Israel, is much more apparent and central.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.