Government-sponsored projects have a reputation among many as being generally unsuccessful. Said skeptics claim that government projects surpass their budgets and miss their deadlines, thus causing more harm than good. To such skeptics, Parashat VaYakheil seems somewhat refreshing. The Mishkan’s construction, arguably the first “government-run” project in Jewish history, results in a resounding success. Both men and women generously donated the necessary materials and willingly volunteered their labor and expertise. Indeed, the Jewish people were so enthusiastic about participating in this project that they donated more than was needed to build the Mishkan. Moshe was forced to instruct Bnei Yisrael to stop offering their goods and services (Shemot 36:3). Immediately following this command, the Torah relates that Bnei Yisrael’s offerings were more than sufficient to complete the Mishkan. It would seem that Bnei Yisrael’s efforts played a significant role in the Mishkan’s timely completion.
Yet regarding the construction of the Beit HaMikdash, the spirit expressed is radically different. Unlike that of the Mishkan, the construction of the Mikdash was devoid of Jewish workers. Shelomoh HaMelech had to hire foreign laborers to perform the construction. Furthermore, there were no generous donations of materials or funds, unlike the overabundance of contributions offered to the Mishkan. Shelomoh had to levy heavy taxes on the Jewish people to fund the project of building the Mikdash. The enthusiasm and generosity that characterized the erection of the Mishkan was nowhere to be found in the construction of the Mikdash.
What accounts for this drastic difference? Why were these two projects marked by such different attitudes? A simple observation holds the key to understanding this difference and learning from it. The completion of the Mishkan resulted in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s immediately resting his presence amongst Bnei Yisrael, thus providing them with direct access to His sanctity. Following the proper Halachot, anyone could encounter HaKadosh Baruch Hu just by walking towards the center of the camp. The completion of the Beit HaMikdash, however, did not result in the immediate presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu amongst the Jewish people and did not provide them with immediate access to His sanctuary. At this point in history, the Jewish people were settled in the land of Israel, spread out in all directions. After completing the Mikdash, most people would still have to make a pilgrimage to stand in the sanctuary to be in the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. While it is true that the Beit HaMikdash represents the fact that God dwells amongst the Jewish people, the sense of immediate access that the Jewish people enjoyed in the desert was absent in this more permanent setting.
Perhaps this difference is reflected in a Halachic difference between the Mishkan and the Mikdash formulated by the Tzafnat Panei’ach as quoted in a Derashah on this topic by Rav Dr. Norman Lamm. Based on a Talmudic analysis, the Rogatchover concludes that the activities of building the Mishkan and the Mikdash represent two different Mitzvot. The act of constructing the Mishkan was a Mitzvah in and of itself. The act of constructing the Beit HaMikdash, however, was not inherently a Mitzvah in and of itself. The Mitzvah is to have a Mikdash, but constructing it is only a Hechsheir Mitzvah, a means by which a commandment can be fulfilled. This could reflect the difference suggested between the two – the building of the Mishkan was a Mitzvah because it resulted in immediate access to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Contrarily, the building of the Mikdash was only a Hechsheir Mitzvah because its completion would require an extra step to gain access to God’s presence – one would still have to make the effort to leave one’s home and travel to the site of the Mikdash.
Our own experience of religious life finds its model not in the Mishkan but in the Mikdash. The construction of the Mishkan while in the desert was a singular event that cannot be replicated today. To live in that climate of miracles where we can encamp around the Shechinah, God’s presence, is an experience that can be experienced only by the generation redeemed from Egypt and physically handed the Torah from Sinai. Our model for Jewish life is found in the Mikdash. No matter what religious center we construct for ourselves, we must make an effort to make full use of it. We are blessed today with every institution our forebears dreamed of: packed Shuls, thriving day schools, the state of Israel, Kosher food establishments, Mikvaot, and many other establishments. But none of these will bring us closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu without our own efforts and initiative. We must bring ourselves, physically and mentally, into their respective spheres of influence in order to benefit from them. It is not enough to merely show up in Shul and send our children to day school. We must actively maximize those experiences if we want them to have a lasting impact. A social commentator once said that our generation consists of “the spoiled brats of Jewish history.” While expressed in the extreme for its shock value, there is a kernel of truth to this statement. We have everything that our great-grandparents dreamed of. Our challenge is to make sure we don’t take these gifts for granted.