"This is what man is all about," writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the Chassidic classic, Tanya. "This is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all the worlds, higher and lower—that there be made for G‑d a dwelling in the lower realms."

The first such "dwelling" to be constructed — and the one which serves as the prototype for all subsequent efforts to make G‑d at home in the physical world — was the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary built by the children of Israel in the Sinai Desert following the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Fifteen physical substances, including gold, silver, copper, wood, wool, linen, animal skins, oil, spices and gemstones — representing a cross-section of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the physical universe and the human resources invested in their workmanship — were forged into an edifice dedicated to man's service of G‑d, and in which G‑d, in turn, chose to commune with man.

This explains the Torah's uncharacteristically elaborate description of the Mishkan. No less than 13 chapters in the Book of Exodus are filled with the details of the Sanctuary's construction, from the dimensions of every pillar to the colors in every tapestry. In contrast, the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe and three chapters to the revelation at Mount Sinai, and conveys many complex laws by means of a single verse, or even a single word or letter.

But if the very purpose of creation is embodied by these bracing rods and foundation sockets, tapestries and furnishings, copper stakes and silver hooks, then obviously, each and every detail is of supreme importance to us. It is crucial that we know that the Menorah had 22 decorative goblets hammered into its design, and that each of the Mishkan's 48 wall panels measured 10 cubits in length and 1.5 cubits in width. It is necessary to define (as the Talmud does) the 39 forms of creative work — from plowing to weaving to lighting to writing — involved in the Mishkan's construction. For here lies the prototype for our life's work of making our world and our lives a home for G‑d.

Three Domains

The Midrash and the Biblical commentaries, and particularly the Kabbalist and the Chassidic expounders of Torah, elaborate on this theme, describing the Mishkan as a model of man, of the physical universe, and of creation as a whole. The Mishkan's furnishings or "vessels," for example, are seen as representations of the various organs and faculties of man: the Ark (containing the Torah) corresponds to the mind, intellect and the faculty of speech; the Menorah, to the eyes and the sense of sight; the Table that held the "showbread," to the sense of taste; the Inner Altar on which the Ketoret (incense) was burned, to the sense of smell; and the Outer Altar on which the animal and meal offerings were brought represent the digestive system and other "functional" organs.

In one of the notebook manuscripts (reshimot) discovered after his passing, the Lubavitcher Rebbe summarizes commentaries by Rabbeinu Bechayei, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Ramah), Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (the Shaloh) and others on this subject, demonstrating how the three primary domains of the Mishkan parallel corresponding divisions in creation, in time, and in the communal soul of Israel.

Maimonides describes the universe as consisting of three strata: unrefined matter (the earth and all terrestrial creatures), refined matter (the stars and heavenly bodies), and wholly spiritual beings (entities that are "forms alone, without matter, such as the angels which are not physical bodies but various forms"). Extending this division to the realm of time, we have the six workdays (unrefined matter), Shabbat (refined matter), and the "sabbath of sabbaths" — Yom Kippur — in which we graduate to a state of consummate spirituality. Among the souls of Israel we have the "Israelites" whose lives are dedicated, on the whole, to the business of material life as farmers, merchants, soldiers and statesmen; the tribe of Levi, whose service in the Holy Temple involved the refinement and elevation of the material world; and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who personified the acme of spirituality attainable by man.

In the Mishkan, these three domains are represented by: 1) the courtyard; 2) the outer chamber of the Sanctuary (the "Holy"); and 3) the "Holy of Holies" — the inner chamber behind the "Veil" or Parochet (see diagram).

The courtyard embraced also the more earthy and "coarse" elements of the Temple service: here the Kohanim washed their hands and feet to cleanse themselves from their contact with the material world before beginning their service or entering the Mishkan proper; here the fat of the Korbanot (animal sacrifices), representing the "excess" materiality in the life of man, was burned upon the Altar; here were deposited the ashes that constituted the "waste" from the Menorah and the Inner Altar. Here were slaughtered the Korbanot, including those whose meat was eaten by ordinary Israelites.

The "Holy," into which only the Kohanim were permitted entry, was the scene of the more "refined" elements of the Temple service: the lighting of the Menorah, the burning of the incense, and the displaying on the Table of the "showbread" eaten by the Kohanim on Shabbat.

Finally, the "Holy of Holies," which housed only the Ark and into which only the Kohen Gadol was permitted entry and only on Yom Kippur, represented the utter transcendence of the material in man's service of G‑d.

The Mishkan included these three domains because the task of "making G‑d a dwelling in the lower realms" embraces all these areas of life: the Jew serves G‑d in his or her most exalted moments; we also serve Him in our effort to elevate and refine our world; and we also strive to make Him "at home" within the most ordinary activities of everyday life.

The Altar and the Ark

Which of the Mishkan's numerous components represents its most basic function? According to Nachmanides, the essence of the "dwelling for G‑d" is its spiritual core. Thus the great commentator writes:

The main object of the Sanctuary is to serve as the resting place of the Divine Presence. This is realized in the Ark, as G‑d says to Moses, "I will commune with you there, speaking to you from above the Kaporet (the Ark's cover)..." This is why the Torah begins its description of the Mishkan with the Ark and the Kaporet (Nachmanides commentary on Exodus 25:1)

Maimonides, on the other hand, defines the Sanctuary as,

A house for G‑d that is designed for the offering of sacrifices... (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 1:1).

Maimonides is saying that the Outside Altar in the Courtyard is the focal point of the Sanctuary, the axis around which everything else revolves!

In other words, there are two possible ways in which to define the concept of a physical place and structure that serves as a "dwelling for G‑d": (a) a place where, and through which, G‑d chooses to reveal Himself to man; (b) a place where, and through which, man serves G‑d.

Of course, the Mishkan was both. It was the place from which G‑d spoke to Moses, where man could witness and experience the presence of G‑d; and it was the place where man offered himself, and the materials of his life, to G‑d. The question is: Which of these two functions is the primary one, and which serves and facilitates the other?

Mystic and Halachist

The Rebbe explains that the different perspectives expressed by Nachmanides and Maimonides reflect the respective streams of Torah thought which these great Sages represent.

To Nachmanides, a noted Kabbalist and mystic, the focal point of the Mishkan lay in its spiritual core. The Holy of Holies which only the most transcendent of souls and the most sacred of times could access; the Ark containing the Tablets of Testimony upon which the Torah in its purest, most germinal articulation was engraved; the Kaporet with its representation of the sublime forms of the Divine Chariot; the divine voice issuing from between the Keruvim — these express the essence of the divine dwelling: a portal into the material world through which G‑d shines a ray of His infinite light. Everything else is to "prepare the ground" for this revelation, to elevate man and his world to a state of receptibility to this light.

To Maimonides, the Halachist par excellence, the essence of the Mishkan resided in the Altar — in the human endeavor to offer up the everyday, material elements of his life to G‑d. Everything else — the pure light of the Menorah, the sublime fragrance of the Ketoret, the holy bread on the Table, even the divine revelations emanating from the Ark — is to enable and assist material man's service of his Creator.

Tent of Meeting

"These and these are the words of the Living G‑d," says the Talmud of disputes between the Sages regarding interpretation of Torah. The mystical vision expressed by Nachmanides and the Halachic perspective put forth by Maimonides are both integral components of the "Dwelling for G‑d" constructed in the Sinai desert, and the "Dwelling for G‑d" we each construct of our lives.

Thus the Torah also calls the Mishkan Ohel Moed, the "Tent of Meeting." Here the Divine, extending itself to earth, and the human and the material, reaching up to heaven, meet.

Here, every human achievement is but a means to make oneself receptive to the all-negating infinitude of the Divine. At the same time, every divine revelation emanating from on high is but an empowerment to man to reveal the G‑dliness implicit within the finitude and materiality of his existence.