The Purpose of the Mishkan
Parshat Terumah begins a series of parshiyot focused on the construction and inauguration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle that traveled with the Jewish people for 497 years until King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. While the Torah tells us in great details how to build the Mishkan, there is not much emphasis in the verses as to why we are to build the Mishkan. The Torah states:
And make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (Shemot 35:8)
This verse is the commandment to build the Temple. The Rambam codifies this as law, and in so doing adds his own understanding of the purpose of the Temple:
It is a positive obligation to build a house for God where offerings may be brought and to make pilgrimage to it three times a year as it says "and they shall make Me a sanctuary." The tabernacle which Moses made in the desert has already been described in the Torah, but it was a temporary measure, as it says "for you have not yet reached, etc." (Laws of the Chosen Temple 1:1)
As we learn in the parsha, there are many vessels in the Tabernacle and many services performed. The Rambam focuses on just two, bringing offerings and the pilgrimage three times a year. It would seem that the Rambam sees the Tabernacle primarily as a spiritual home of the Jewish people. It is about us. It’s the place we go to bring sacrifices and the place that we go to be together as a people. That is the primary function of the Temple.
The Ramban has a very different approach:
...And hence He first commanded about the matter of the tabernacle that He should have a house among them that would be dedicated to His name - and there would He speak with Moshe and [continue to] command the Children of Israel. And behold the main object in the tabernacle is the place that the Divine presence would rest, which is the ark, as He said (Exodus 25:22), "And I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the ark-cover." (Ramban, Shemot 25:1)
For the Ramban, the Tabernacle was primarily a resting place for the Divine presence of God. By extension, the Ramban writes that the ark was the most important vessel because it was the object through which God’s presence emanated. In contrast, one could argue that for the Rambam, the altar was the most important vessel, not the ark, because the altar was used for the offerings, the primary function according to the Rambam.
The Bechor Shor presents a compromise opinion. While the Ramban maintains that the Mishkan was God-focused, and the Rambam maintains that it was people-focused, the Bechor Shor argues that in its essence it was both.
The Bechor Shor writes that when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moshe, the stone tablets needed to be stored somewhere. Therefore an ark was needed. But it would not be fitting to just have an ark, and therefore an entire Tabernacle was constructed. It would also not be proper to have a Tabernacle sitting alone in the desert, and therefore the Jewish people were to set up their camp surrounding the Tabernacle. In short, there are a series of concentric circles surrounding the Shechina, the Divine presence of God. This approach sounds very similar to that of the Ramban, that the Tabernacle is God focused. Yet at the same time the Bechor Shor includes the presence of the Jewish people as a critical ingredient in creating the proper dwelling place for God, similar to the approach of the Rambam.
The Bechor Shor writes that just as the angels on high surround the Divine throne of God, so too the Jewish people surround the Divine presence of God in the Tabernacle. In this sense, the very presence of the Jewish people is not only a necessary ingredient for the construction of the Tabernacle, but our presence brings kavod, honor, to the Almighty.