Why Does Hashem Want a House?
The second half of Sefer Shemot revolves almost exclusively around the building of the Mishkan, with thirteen full chapters detailing its planning and implementation, interrupted only to recount the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. What was the purpose of this grand edifice? At first glance, the answer appears obvious, as the framing instructions for the Tabernacle's construction create an inclusio which spotlights its role as a dwelling place for Hashem's presence:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. (כ"ה:ח')
וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים. וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיהֶם. (כ"ט:מ"ה-מ"ו)
And they should make me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (25:8)
And I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will be their God. And they will know that I am Hashem their God, who has taken them out from the land of Egypt to dwell among them, I am Hashem their God. (29:45-46)
However, these verses merely raise the question: If we assume that Hashem is not a corporal being and cannot be contained within a physical framework,1 why does He request a finite structure to house His presence?2 Moreover, why did He desire that we perform all of the Mishkan's daily rituals such as its sacrificial offerings,3 incense burning, and lamp lighting? This enigma is succinctly formulated by R. Saadia Gaon:
אולי יתמה ממעשה המשכן ויאמר: מה לבורא לאהל ולמסך, ולנרות מודלקות, ולקול נשמע לנגון, וללחם אפוי, ולריח טוב, ולמנחת סולת ויין ושמן ופירות, והדומה לזה?... כי כבר דן לו השכל שאיננו צריך אל דבר, אבל צורך הכל אליו.
And perhaps one will ask from the building of the Tabernacle, and one will say: why does the Creator need a tent and a screen, and lit candles, and a melodious voice, and baked bread, and a good smell, and a fine flour offering, and oil and fruit, and similar things?... Because the mind already ruled that he does not need a thing, but everything needs him.
What Suddenly Changed?
The command to build the Mishkan appears as something of a surprise in the context of the Israelites' trek through the Wilderness. The nation had just witnessed Hashem's revelation at Mt. Sinai which was immediately followed by a directive to build altars of earth or stone if a need should arise to offer sacrifices (Shemot 20:20-22).4 They had also been notified of their impending journey to the land of Israel and directed to bring the first fruits of the land to the House of Hashem (Shemot 23:19-33). But there had not even been a hint of any need to build a temporary place of worship in the Wilderness itself. All that apparently remained before the commencement of the awaited journey to the Promised Land was for Moshe to ascend Mt. Sinai and bring down the Tablets of the Covenant.5
Why, then, did Hashem suddenly shift course and issue instructions to launch a massive building project, the implementation of which would delay the journey by at least six months?6 Additionally, until this point, the nation had functioned perfectly well with Hashem's presence embodied in the Pillars of Cloud and Fire or descending to Moshe's personal tent.7 What required the sudden transformation of the status quo,8 and why was Moshe not informed of this change until he was already atop Mt. Sinai?9
Twin Foci – Revelation and Atonement
The Torah calls the Mishkan both "מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת" ("Tabernacle of Testimony") and "אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד" ("Tent of Meeting"), suggesting that its primary function was to safeguard the "לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת" (the concrete testimony to Hashem's revelation) and to facilitate His ongoing communication with Moshe from between the cherubs on the "אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת".10 The main action in the Tabernacle, though, revolves around its other vessels, in particular the altars and their offerings. These, in contrast to the aron, function as vehicles for atonement.11 What is the relationship between the roles of these various vessels? Is the focal point of the Mishkan its concealed ark and Tablets or its atoning altars?