Sacrifices and the Divine Presence

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

Adapted by Immanuel Mayer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The Mishkan – place of God’s dwelling

At the beginning of the parasha, God commands:

“And let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Mishkan and the pattern of all its vessels – so shall you make it.” (Shemot 25:8-9)

These verses encapsulate the aim and purpose of the Mishkan: it allows God’s Presence to dwell amongst the nation. Indeed, at the end of Sefer Shemot we find that this aim materializes:

“Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” (40:34-35)

God’s Name and His glory fill the Mishkan.

It is within the same context that we read at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra:

“And He called to Moshe, and God spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak of Bnei Yisrael and say to them, If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, of the cattle shall you bring your offering, of the herd, and of the flock.” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

God calls to Moshe from inside the Mishkan, from within the cloud that is in the Tent of Meeting. It seems logical and natural that the place where the sacrifices are offered should be the place where God’s Presence rests. In other words, the resting of God’s Presence finds expression in those sacrifices, as well as in many other mitzvot that are described in Sefer Vayikra. In fact, the entire Sefer – with the exception of its last two parashiot – deals with the commandments given to Moshe in the Mishkan.

Another verse expressing the same idea appears after the giving of the Torah:

“An altar of earth shall you make to Me, and you shall sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in all 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 sword over it, you have defiled it.” (Shemot 20:21-22)

The idea that God’s blessing exists in every place where His Name is mentioned, is juxtaposed with the command to build an altar. Thus, the sacrifices are a way of publicizing and declaring God’s Name in the world. Indeed, Ramban (ad loc.) explains:

“In truth, the units are organized such that they follow an order: ‘You have seen that I have spoken with you from the heavens’ (Shemot 20:19) by My great Name, and so therefore ‘You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold’ (Shemot 20:20). However, I permit you to make an altar, for Me alone, and to ‘sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings’ in ‘every place where I cause My Name to be pronounced’ for ‘I will come to you and I will bless you’ – with ‘blessings of the heavens above; blessings of the deep that crouches beneath’ (Bereishit 49:25).”

Mishkan – the place for offering sacrifices

The Rambam presents a different view of Mishkan in the opening of his Hilkhot Beit HaBechira (1:1):

“It is a positive commandment to build a House for God, ready for sacrifices to be offered within it, and celebrations are held there three times a year, as it is written (Shemot 25:8), ‘And you shall make Me a Sanctuary.’ The Mishkan built by Moshe as described in the Torah was only temporary, as it is written (Devarim 12:9), ‘For as yet you have not come [to the place of rest and inheritance].’”

In contrast to Ramban and the plain meaning of the verses, as we have seen, suggesting that the purpose of the sacrifices is to express God’s Presence in the Temple, here the focus is on the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices are not meant as a response to or expression of God’s Presence resting in the Temple in fulfillment of His promise “that I may dwell in their midst”; rather, the sacrifices are an end in and of themselves, for the sake of which we must build a Temple.

Here the obvious question arises: was the Rambam then unfamiliar with the verses we quoted above? Did he perhaps fail to notice that the very first verse in our parasha sets forth explicitly the purpose of the Mishkan as the place of God’s dwelling amongst Bnei Yisrael?

In fact, the same idea is stated explicitly again, at the end of parashat Tetzaveh:

“And there I shall meet with Bnei Yisrael, and it shall be sanctified with My glory. And I will sanctify also both Aharon and his sons, to minister to Me as kohanim. And I will dwell among Bnei Yisrael, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.” (Shemot 29:43-46)

The message of these verses seems to be quite clear. It could not be stated more clearly: the purpose of the Mishkan is for God to meet with Bnei Yisrael, to sanctify the nation, to make His Name present in the world. How, then, does the Rambam arrive at the conclusion that the purpose of the Temple is the offering of sacrifices?

Mishkan vs. Temple

In order to answer this question, we need to pay close attention to the Rambam’s words. First of all, in quoting the verse from our parasha, he brings only the first part – “Let them make Me a Sanctuary,” while omitting the continuation, “that I may dwell in their midst.”

Seemingly, the Rambam draws a distinction between the Mishkan and the Mikdash (Temple). The Mishkan was indeed meant to be a place where God’s Presence dwells; it is the place of His Name and His glory. According to the Rambam, all the verses quoted above refer to the Mishkan alone. There – and only there – God causes His Name to rest, and the sacrifices are an expression of that reality, along with their other functions for those who offer them.

In the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael receive manna and water directly from God, and their garments do not wear out. However, once the nation reaches Eretz Yisrael, their reality starts to be dependent upon themselves. The period of the wilderness is symbolized by the Mishkan and the period in the land of Israel by the Mikdash (Temple). The entry into the land expresses and embodies the transition from a miraculous way of life to a natural way of life, from a situation in which God performs miracles and acts for man’s sake, to a situation in which man himself must exert effort to make things happen.

This contrast between the generation of the wilderness and the generation that enters the land also finds expression in the difference between the Mishkan and the Temple. In the Mishkan, God indeed caused His Presence to rest. In the Temple, however, He expects man to bring His Name there. This is the purpose of the sacrifices: to define the place as the House of the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Foundation Stone and the sacrificial altar

Thus, there is a fundamental difference of opinion between Ramban and the Rambam when it comes to their respective perceptions of the Temple. This disagreement is also expressed in the question of what represents the heart of the Temple. In the Introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, Ramban expounds on the Foundation Stone:

“[It is written,] ‘Out of Tzion, the perfection of beauty, God shone forth…’ (Tehillim 50:2). Out of Tzion the whole world was developed. How is this known? Why was it called 'the Foundation Stone?' Because the world was founded from it….”

This stone, as we know, lies beneath the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. The Ark of the Covenant is the place of the Divine Presence, the place from which God’s word comes to Moshe. From the stone beneath the Ark, God began to build the world.

In contrast to Ramban, the Rambam makes no mention of the Foundation Stone anywhere in the Mishneh Torah in the context of a description of the Temple. (He mentions it once in Hilkhot Avodat Yom HaKippurim, in an altogether technical context.) In his view, the heart of the Temple is the sacrificial altar, the place where sacrifices are offered and the geographical center of the Temple structure.

The same difference of perception is reflected in the list of mitzvot. According to the Rambam, the building of the Temple and the building of the altar are two separate mitzvot. Ramban, on the other hand, counts them together. Instead, he separates the building of the Temple from the building of the Ark, regarding each as its own separate positive mitzva. (See Rambam’s positive mitzvot no. 20; Hilkhot Beit HaBechira, chapters 1-2; and Ramban’s gloss, commandment no. 33)

Assuming responsibility for the world

In fact, this difference of opinion is not limited to one’s understanding of the Mishkan vs. the Temple. It extends to a broad view of man’s place in God’s world.

The Rambam views the commandments as human actions that change the world. In his view, God gives Am Yisrael commandments, thereby bequeathing to them the ability to effect change and have an impact in many different areas. The Ramban, we might say, views mitzvot as a way for man to tap into Divine manifestation in the world.

The Rambam and Ramban are similarly divided in their view of the sanctification of the new moon. According to the Rambam, it is the court that actually sanctifies the new moon; it is they who establish and define Rosh Chodesh, while God “listens” to them, as it were, and accedes to their decision. Ramban, on the other hand, maintains that the court simply clarifies (through questioning witnesses) the time of the sanctification of the new moon, which is actually determined by God Himself.

Attention should be paid to the deeper significance of what the Rambam is saying: God gives His world over to man so that he will develop it, and He has given man the tools and the guidance to proceed with that task. In fact, according to the Rambam, even today, in the absence of a court on the Temple Mount, Am Yisrael in the Land of Israel actually, literally, sanctifies the new moon.

Another area in which the difference of opinion reveals itself pertains to the mitzva of visiting the Temple. Ramban maintains that the mitzva of “re’iya” and the mitzva of bringing sacrifices are mutually independent. The Rambam, in contrast, insists that the mitzvah of “re’iya” must be accompanied by the bringing of a sacrifice (Hilkhot Chagiga 1:1). From the Rambam’s words we learn of man’s huge impact in the world: man’s world which is also God’s world.

Along with this impact comes great responsibility. Causing God’s Name and Presence to dwell in the world, along with establishing appointed times and many other attainments, are all dependent on us. We must realize this potential that God has placed within us in the best possible way.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Teruma 5773 [2013].)