Beit Mikdash and Beit Midrash

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Summarized by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“Thunder and lightning and heavy cloud”

“And all the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they were shaken, and stood afar. And they said to Moshe, You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” (Shemot 20:15-16)

Am Yisrael stands at Mount Sinai and they are afraid that they will die. The thunderous, electric, smoky darkness is terrifying:

“And Moshe brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai smoked in every part, because the Lord descended upon it in fire, and the smoke of it ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And then the voice of the shofar sounded louder and louder; Moshe speaks, and God answers him by a voice.” (Shemot 19:17-19)

The impact of this occasion is expressed in the Haggada: “Had He brought us close before Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah, it would suffice for us.” One might ask, what could be the point of standing at Sinai without receiving the Torah? Clearly, this was a profound and penetrating experience in its own right, even before the Torah was given.

In Sefer Devarim, prominent and explicit attention is given to the experience of the Revelation:

“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly in the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a great voice which was not heard again. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone, and delivered them to me.

And it came to pass, when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness – for the mountain burned with fire – that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders, and you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory, and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; we have seen this day that God does talk with man, and he lives. Now, therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You go near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God shall speak to you, and we will hear it, and do it.’” (Devarim 5:19-24)

In Sefer Devarim we see that Bnei Yisrael want Moshe to represent them, out of fear that they will die if they continue to hear God’s voice. It is readily apparent that their claim is self-contradictory, since they themselves acknowledge, “For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?” Why, then, are they afraid that they will die?

“In order that the fear of Him be before your faces”

It seems that “death” is not meant here in the simple, literal sense, for Am Yisrael are aware that they are still alive. Rather, they fear the death of the “self.” Am Yisrael is afraid that receiving the Torah directly from God will have a permanent, irreversible effect on personal character and the ability to achieve self-fulfillment, to preserve uniqueness and independence. The concern is that full, complete and absolute commitment to God, accepted as a nation, will harm every individual and his right to his own personal freedom.

Moshe, an ideal figure capable of living in a constant state of intense spiritual experience, rebukes them:

“And Moshe said to the people: ‘Fear not, for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before your faces, so that you will not sin.’ And the people stood far off, and Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Shemot 20:17-18)

Moshe tries to persuade the people to actually hear God, to nullify themselves before Him and to be ready to serve Him wholeheartedly. Ultimately, however, Moshe approaches the thick darkness alone, while the nation remains far off. God understands the nation’s fear and answers Moshe:

“And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there be such a heart in them, that they will fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever.’” (Devarim 5:25-26)

God accepts the argument of the people and treats their request as a positive inner developement: “O that there be such a heart in them….”

Why can Am Yisrael not live with this “high voltage” spiritual experience on an ongoing basis? The human condition is such that when a person has a powerful experience (of any sort) on a very frequent basis, it begins to lose its value and meaning for him; he becomes desensitized. The intense joy of a wedding, for example, could not be sustained if a person were to hold a wedding every night, complete with a banquet, music, etc. A couple has to invest effort in the mundane reality of their ongoing relationship, nurturing a simple but intimate bond in their everyday interaction. Likewise, the Mishkan is a home of sorts, in which the spiritual experience of the Revelation at Sinai is preserved. As the Mishna teaches:

“‘On the day of his wedding’ (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11) – this refers to the [day of] the giving of the Torah, ‘and on the day of the gladness of his heart’ (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11) – this refers to the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.” (Ta’anit 4:8)

Moreover, if Am Yisrael had to maintain such a high level of spiritual tension, spiritual progress would lose its value, since such moments of elevation would be common; there would be nothing new or unusual about them.

The command concerning the Mishkan

For this reason, God commanded that Am Yisrael’s motivation be channeled in other ways. In Sefer Shemot, we find that God  gives Am Yisrael three commands following their request that Moshe mediate between them and God:

“And the Lord said to Moshe, Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisrael: You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven;

  1. You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.
  2. An altar of earth shall you make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in all the places where I cause My Name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you. And if you will make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift up your blade upon it, you have defiled it.
  3.  Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness not be exposed on it.” (Shemot 20:19-23)

The first command, “You shall not make with Me gods of silver,” demands that Am Yisrael not forsake the worship of God, despite the difficulty involved. There is concern here that when Am Yisrael discovers and understands God’s profound demands, they will turn to “gods of silver” and “gods of gold,” and so God warns against this explicitly.

The aim of the third command is to prevent Am Yisrael from superfluous attempts to ascend to God: “Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar” – because if Am Yisrael were to burst forth towards God at inappropriate times, they could be harmed. They are warned against running away with themselves, forging ahead too quickly.

The second command is one of the main solutions that God gives Am Yisrael, along with Parashat Mishpatim (which follows from these three commands). We find here two alternatives for the ecstatic Divine worship that occurred at the Revelation at Sinai: the Mishkan, and the “mishpatim” (judgments, laws).

The Mishkan is an alternative of sorts because there is ongoing, fixed service, with a clear connection with God in the form of the offering of sacrifices, while the Mishkan itself is a spiritual nerve-center for all of Am Yisrael – “… that I may dwell in their midst.” Every Jew can go to the Mishkan and seek God. The Mishkan is a way of maintaining the connection with God, in a way that allows the nation to continue living as usual, alongside Divine worship. The command concerning the Mishkan also appears in the “covenant of the basins” at the end of Parashat Mishpatim:

“And Moshe came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has said, we will do.’ And Moshe wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the young men of Bnei Yisrael, who offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moshe took half of the blood, and put it in basins, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people, and they said, ‘All that the Lord has said, we will do and obey.’ And Moshe took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you concerning all these words.’” (Shemot 24:3-8)

The Mishkan is a solution that condenses the experience of the Revelation, in the spirit of the midrash that speaks of the Mishkan as a portable dwelling for the king:

“…Instead, make Me a chamber that I may speak with her [Am Yisrael]: So it was in the beginning, ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him…’ (Hoshea 11:1). In Egypt, they saw Me: ‘And I shall pass through the land of Egypt…’ (Shemot 12:12). At the sea they saw Me: ‘And Israel saw the great hand…’ (Shemot 14:31). At Sinai, they saw Me face to face, as it is written, ‘Face to face God spoke with you’ (Devarim 5:4). When they received the Torah, … ‘Let them make Me a Sanctuary’ – and I will speak to them from within the Mishkan.” (Yalkut Shimoni Shir Ha-shirim 586)

Massekhet Bava Kama

Along with the Mishkan, God offers another solution for spiritual experience; this solution, too, is firmly rooted in day-to-day life:

“And these are the judgments which you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, without paying.” (Shemot 21:1-2)

It is no coincidence that the laws contained in most of Massekhet Bava Kama come after the Revelation at Sinai. Am Yisrael is looking for a way of maintaining the connection with God, and the setting down of the statutes and judgments is the second solution that God proposes, after the Mishkan. In Sefer Devarim, too, we find:

“But as for you – stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I gave them to possess it. You shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” (Devarim 5:28-29)

“The commandments and the statutes and the judgments” are the solution that God provides after Bnei Yisrael’s request, to which the response is, “They have well said all that they have spoken.” God offers the solution of Torah study, with its tremendous, immeasurable depth and breadth. These two solutions are also mentioned explicitly in the Gemara:

“And this is as Rabbi Chiya bar Ami said in the name of Ula: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has nothing in His world but the four ‘amot’ of Halakha alone.” (Berakhot 8a)

This teaches us that while the Temple stood, there were two channels for closeness to God: the Temple, with its sacrificial service, and Halakha. Since the Destruction, what remains is the ‘four amot of Halakha’ alone. Of course, we must also bear in mind the Gemara’s teaching (Yoma 86b) that prayer is the replacement for the sacrifices in our times – “We will offer the words of our lips instead of calves” (Hoshea 14:3).

Routine and renewal in the life of the individual

These solutions have two ramifications, on the personal and the collective level. On the personal level, we learn that we cannot spend all our time pursuing powerful experiences. The proper path to follow is that of ongoing, day-to-day effort. An example is the ongoing endeavor of Torah study, which accumulates over time. We are now approaching the middle of the year, and this is an appropriate time to take stock of what we have done over the course of this period. There are some people who might be asking themselves, “What have we done this year? We haven’t made any progress at all.” Sometimes, this sort of soul-searching leads to a feeling that one has achieved nothing, that one’s Torah study is not accompanied by any special Divine aid; that it is a lost cause. “Maybe I’m not cut out to study Torah.”

It is important to remember that yeshiva study is a cumulative endeavor that is carried out over an extended period of time and demands intensive work throughout the year. There is a story of someone once asking the Vilna Gaon if he would like the entire Torah to be revealed to him by Eliyahu, without him having to labor over it, word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter. The Vilna Gaon reportedly declined. He understood the significance of the experience of studying Torah by one’s own efforts. Beyond this, he understood that we are not judged by the measure of knowledge that we acquire, but rather by the measure of effort that we invest. What would we answer if someone were to offer to install the entire Responsa Project in our brains in the form of a tiny chip?

The spiritual growth and the knowledge that accumulate with effort over time, gradually become noticeable in the student. One cannot draw conclusions from a mere half-year of study. Everyone can ask his friends, his teachers, or the mashgiach, and hear from them about his own progress. One cannot compare a student in his first or second year of study to someone who has been in yeshiva for a long time, for there is always spiritual movement and progress. Nevertheless, this movement is not to be measured in days, and it is impossible to determine a point of transition or a moment of change – just as a father is unable to tell his children at what exact moment he fell in love with their mother. The inner world of a yeshiva student is built one brick at a time, at its own pace, and we must not be afraid to embark on this process and to become “yeshiva students” – bachurei yeshiva.

Students sometimes ask me on Purim, when they are happily tipsy, how they might progress and acquire more knowledge and fear of Heaven. The way to do this is by studying and investing effort on all the other 364 days of the year. On Purim we rejoice over the Torah; the other days of the year we study it. Yom Kippur happens only once a year, and the Ne’ila prayer is a rare and very special experience. If we were to experience a Yom Kippur every week, Ne’ila would lose its significance. Therefore, we must focus on our spiritual efforts throughout the year and thereby elevate ourselves.

Study of Torah throughout the year, on an ongoing basis, with a significant effort to “receive the Torah” in a personal sense, will lead, with God’s help, to a feeling of connectedness to the Torah and to God. We must focus on our daily lives, on our ‘sedarim’ during the day, and progress and thrive through them.

“And he sent Yehuda before him” – communal Torah

On the communal level, Torah study as a solution has undergone transformation in recent times. We know that the Torah has a unique status and importance, as the Gemara teaches:

“Seven things were created before the world was created, and these are they: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Mashiach. Torah – as it is written (Mishlei 8:22), ‘The Lord created me as the beginning of His way….’” (Pesachim 54a)

It is not for nothing that the Torah was given in the wilderness. Admittedly, there is a view amongst Chazal that the Torah was given there in order to express the “democratic” nature of Torah study, which is available to all:

“What is the meaning of the verse (Bamidbar 21:18-19), ‘… And from the wilderness to Matana (or, ‘a gift’), and from Matana – to Nachliel, and from Nachliel to Bamot?’ The answer is – if a person makes himself like a wilderness, which is open to all, then Torah will be given to him as a gift, as it is written, ‘from the wilderness – a gift.’” (Nedarim 55a)

However, there is another level to the idea of the Torah being given in the wilderness. The Torah is independent of time or place, and the question of Eretz Yisrael has no decisive impact on the commandment of Torah study. The Torah is the ultimate focus; it is severed from any concrete, earthly factor. The Torah is beyond the world; it existed before the world did.

This approach reached its zenith in the manner of Torah study practiced in the Lithuanian yeshivot some 150 years ago, and since then it has been the prevailing approach. It is not the approach of the Charedi public alone. Despite the many points of disagreement between the Religious-Zionist public and the Charedi public, Torah study is an absolute value for us, too, and is not measured against or compared with other values.

Charedi rabbis used to be brought in to teach at Religious-Zionist yeshiva high schools not only because of the dearth of educators amongst our own sector, but also in order to nurture this attitude of exclusivity towards Torah, and to inculcate among the students the understanding that Torah stands above all else. In the eulogy that I delivered for my Rabbi and teacher, Rav Aryeh Bina, of blessed memory, I mentioned the uniqueness of his ability to create a “Lithuanian yeshiva high-school” – Yeshivat Netiv Meir – here in Israel:

“R. Aryeh was one of those sons of ‘Yehuda,’ who came here with the wealth of the yeshiva world of Eastern Europe… His wisdom led him, specifically at Netiv Meir, to emphasize this former aspect. Because he knew that he was deeply immersed in what was happening in Israel, he decided to be the head of a Lithuanian high-school yeshiva. He was a unique person: the head of a [Religious Zionist] high-school yeshiva who was also the head of a Lithuanian yeshiva.

He represented this combination in the smaller details, too. He wore a Lithuanian kippa, and instituted the singing of niggunim from the beit midrash of the Mussar movement in the beit midrash prior to his sicha. He took care to inculcate within us the feeling that Netiv Meir was a yeshiva in the full sense of the word, in no way inferior to any other yeshiva.”

We must know that the Divine service of Torah study is immeasurably greater than the tremendous importance of the Divine service of the army. The yeshiva is a place that is important in its own right; one should not treat two years of Torah study merely as a “preparation” for military service. We must understand that Torah is the central spiritual pillar that allows us to create a direct connection with God; nothing can compare with it.

The yeshiva world must create a new generation of talmidei chakhamim – not only a scholarly elite to serve as rabbis of the next generation, but a significant cadre of regular citizens for whom the Torah occupies a position of honor, and who are guided by it in their educational and communal efforts, in the synagogue, in schools, and in their family life.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5773 [2013].)