Melakhim Alef Chapter 8
Shelomo assembles the elders and leaders of Israel in Jerusalem and eventually the entire nation gathers there for a ceremony dedicating the new Bet Hamiqdash. The event is held in the month of Tishre just prior to the holiday of Sukkot. The Kohanim and Levites carry the Ark, the Tabernacle and all of its original vessels to Jerusalem and many sacrifices are offered. The Kohanim then bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies and deposit it beneath the wings of the large Keruvim that Shelomo Hamelekh had placed there.
Shelomo had fashioned new staves/poles for the Ark that were especially long and protruded from the Holy of Holies such that they could be seen by someone standing in the Hekhal. Once the Kohanim left the Sanctuary, a cloud, representing the Divine Presence, filled the Bet Hamiqdash, making further entry or service there temporarily impossible. This was the same manner in which the Tabernacle of the wilderness was consecrated in the times of Moshe, and underscored the continuity between that structure and the “new and improved” permanent home of the Shekhina.
Shelomo then delivers two “speeches”. The first is a lengthy but beautiful and moving monologue known as the “Prayer of Shelomo”. As with all Biblical poetry, it needs to be read word for word to be truly appreciated. Shelomo begins by acknowledging Hashem’s fulfillment of His promise to David that he will have a worthy successor on the throne of Israel, and praying that he will continue to merit that honor.
Shelomo identifies the paradox of creating a “house” for God – He is infinite, incorporeal and transcendent and cannot be contained even by the Heavens, much less in a home constructed by human hands. Shelomo therefore beseeches Hashem that He take special note of the prayers offered in the Temple, and catalogues an array of circumstances under which people supplicate to God – for example, when they have sinned and repented, when there is a crisis or famine, when they must head out to battle, or when they have been taken into captivity.
Shelomo specifically requests that Hashem answer the prayers of non-Jews who arrive at the Bet Hamiqdash in search of a relationship with the God of Israel. Over the course of his speech, Shelomo stresses multiple times that while the worship of Hashem will occur on Earth at the Temple, Hashem will hear the supplications in “Heaven”, His true dwelling-place, and respond accordingly.
Finally, Shelomo offers a shorter prayer, addressed to the assembled populace. He thanks Hashem for having fulfilled all of the promises He made to the Jewish people, and asks the Almighty to help the Jews maintain their faithfulness to Torah so they can continue to merit His blessings and to teach the world the truth of monotheism. Shelomo closes by exhorting his fellow Israelites to carefully observe all of the laws of the Torah; the future will depend on their proper exercise of free will.
Tens of thousands more sacrifices were offered that day and the people celebrated the dedication of the Temple for seven days, followed by the seven days of Sukkot. On the eighth day, Shemini Atseret, the king blesses the people and sends them home.
There are a number of ideas worth highlighting in this beautiful chapter. Shelomo uses the words “makhon leshivtekha” (a place for Your dwelling) several times, borrowing the phrase that was used by the Jews when they crossed the Sea of Reeds, “You have made a place for Your dwelling, Hashem.” This is another instance of the theme that the dedication of the Bet HaMiqdash was really the final stage of the Exodus journey. Shelomo’s references throughout his prayer to the Exodus and the establishment of the Jews as God’s people accentuate this theme.
Two critical theological notions are articulated in this chapter. Many people assume that the struggle against anthropomorphism and the belief that God is outside of space and time are modern phenomena, and that the personalities of the Bible had a much less sophisticated concept of Hashem’s relationship with His creation. Shelomo’s prayer demonstrates that, on the contrary, from the very beginning of the consecration of the Bet Miqdash it was NEVER understood to be Hashem’s home in a literal sense.
Hashem transcends all of His creation. While the experience of entering and worshiping in the Bet Hamiqdash is immensely powerful and promotes tremendous concentration and depth of thought, the purpose it serves is a human one. Hashem is not limited to any one location nor does He hear prayer any less when it is offered outside of the Temple. Shelomo merely asks that the Temple be a worthy and effective vehicle of uplifting the prayers of those who visit it and that it testify clearly to the relationship between the Creator and the Jewish people.
The second theological idea Shelomo expresses is the focus on prayer rather than sacrifice in the Temple. Again, one hears very often that our downplaying of sacrifices is the result of modern sensibilities that see such ritual forms as archaic. Many people have a bloody and negative perception of the Bet Hamiqdash as a result, and feel that it is incongruous with today’s world. Yet from Shelomo’s words it is quite evident that he understood the Temple primarily as a national center of prayer, not sacrifice. Nowhere in his lengthy supplication does he mention the offering of sacrifices in the Temple nor does he request that such sacrifices be accepted, even though he himself offers tens of thousands of animals in sacrifice the same day.
As Isaiah famously declares, the house of God is meant to be the quintessential house of prayer. Although sacrifice is a part of the Temple operation and is respected for the function it serves, it is not considered the main path of a person to Hashem. Torah study, charitable acts and prayer are assigned superiority over most other commandments and observances, and certainly over sacrifice.
One last question raised in the commentaries pertains to Yom Kippur. According to the text, the Jewish people celebrated for the seven days prior to Sukkot; this means, by definition, that they partied on Yom Kippur! The Talmud and traditional commentaries accept this conclusion and state that the Jews indeed ate on Yom Kippur that year but they were absolved from any consequences and promised a place in the World to Come. What was the basis for dispensing with Yom Kippur that year?
In order to understand the answer, we must put Yom Kippur itself into perspective. In essence, Yom Kippur is about hitting the “reset” button on our service of Hashem. Over the course of a year we become lazy, sloppy, presumptuous and generally out of focus in our worship of God. Yom Kippur is a day on which we acknowledge our failings and recalibrate our relationship with the Divine Presence.
The commandment of Yom Kippur was given in the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who approached Hashem inappropriately with an unauthorized form of worship on the final day of the Tabernacle’s dedication, and lost their lives as a result. Yom Kippur is meant to remind us that we should not overestimate our closeness to or familiarity with Hashem and thereby lessen our reverence for His service. Fascinatingly, the highlight of Yom Kippur is the entry of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies and his generating of a “cloud” of incense. This is a kind of simulation of the cloud of the Divine Presence that originally consecrated the Sanctuary. By imitating the Divine consecration of the Tabernacle or Temple, we recognize the need to symbolically “re-consecrate” it through our Yom Kippur service each year.
This explains why Yom Kippur could be set aside the year that the Temple was dedicated, as it would be the year Ezra and Nehemia unveiled the Second Temple. On these occasions, the Jewish people had reached a level of closeness to the Almighty that justified His resting of His presence upon their sanctuary. It was the beginning of the journey, the actual, initial manifestation of the Divine presence, and therefore the focus needed to be on the dedication of the sacred space and not on the unworthiness of the people or their need for continual cleansing. Observing Yom Kippur that year and artificially “creating” the cloud of the Shekhina would have diminished the impact of the actual encounter with Hashem that served to consecrate the Temple.