Rabbi Shimon said, "There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of kehunah (priesthood), and the crown of malchus (kingship). But the crown of a good name is greater than them all." (Avos 4:13)
Three of the four primary objects in the holiest part of the Beis HaMikdash had crowns, that is, golden rims decorating them: the Ark of the Covenant, the Golden Table, and the Golden Altar had rims, but the Menorah did not. The Ark, which contained the two tablets given by God to Moshe, obviously corresponds to the crown of Torah; the Golden Altar, on which the kohanim offered the incense, corresponds to the crown of kehunah; and the Golden Table, on which the special bread was placed, corresponds to the crown of malchus. The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 14:9) tells us that the Menorah, which had no crown, corresponds to the crown of a good name. Let us investigate the meaning behind all of this.
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WHAT'S IN A CROWN?
The word used by the Torah for the decorative crowns on the sacred objects in the Mishkan is zer. This word is closely related to the word nazir, designating a nazirite, someone who dedicates his life to holy purposes by abstaining from wine and certain other things for a designated period. The Torah teaches us that he must avoid contact with corpses for:
...the nezer [crown] of God is upon his head. (Bamidbar 6:7)
The crown of God is upon his head - know that all humans serve earthly desires, but the true king, who has the crown and diadem of malchus on his head, is one who is free from earthly desires. (Ibn Ezra loc. cit.)
So it seems that the zer symbolizes raising oneself above the usual desires of humanity and entering a holier and more spiritual realm. Just as a crown sits on the king's head, above his whole person, so too, the spiritual crown sets a person above the norms of the physical world.
Each of the three vessels in the Mishkan, which represent the Torah, malchus, and kehunah, indicates that there is a need to rise above the potentially harmful elements inherent in each concept. Torah study, while clearly essential to Jewish life, carries the possibility of arrogance. Indeed, excellence at Torah study can result in a false feeling of superiority over one's peers. The king must obviously be very careful not to overrate himself and lord it over his subjects, for he is automatically showered with honor and respect. The extra restrictions applicable to a king testify to the necessity for care in this area. Similarly, the kohen commands a position of great respect in the community, whose atonement, Torah study, and many other factors depend on him. This position can be abused to the spurious advantage of the unscrupulous; great care is needed to avoid this. So each of these three great gifts to klal Yisrael - Torah, malchus, and kehunah - need special attention to ensure that they are used only for holy rather than self-seeking purposes. The crowns on the Ark, Table, and Altar represent this constant need.
However, the Menorah, which represents the good name attainable by every member of klal Yisrael, has no rim. The brightly burning lamps of the Menorah shine forth with the glow of Godly light, which can be received and internalized by all who seek it. There is no potential bad associated with this pure Divine influence, only good for those who are prepared for it. Thus the Menorah, alone among the vessels in the Beis HaMikdash, has no golden rim.
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SHABBOS AND SHALOSH REGALIM
This analysis gives us a fascinating insight into the nature of the yamim tovim vis-a-vis the weekly Shabbos. Each of the shalosh regalim, the three major Festivals, can be linked to one of the crowns we mentioned above. Pesach was the moment when klal Yisrael became a royal nation, fit for special treatment by God. This corresponds to the crown of malchus. Shavuos, when the Torah was given to klal Yisrael, obviously corresponds to the crown of Torah. Finally, Sukkos corresponds to the crown of kehunah, for Sukkos and Aharon, the founding father of the priesthood and the quintessential kohen, are intimately linked.
Each of these three festivals has the inherent danger we discussed earlier. As such, extra care must be taken at these times to avoid misusing their great spiritual potential for selfish uses. Indeed, each of the shalosh regalim has an element of judgment associated with it, which reflects the fact that one's service of God is under scrutiny at these times:
At four junctures of the year the world is judged: on Pesach for the grain, on Shavuos for the fruit, on Sukkos for the water... (Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 1:2)
This element of judgment, however, is not present on Shabbos. This is analogous to the Menorah, which has no golden rim. According to the philosophy of the Arizal, there is no potential for abuse present in the atmosphere which prevails on Shabbos; everything can be used for spiritual progress on that day.
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MISHKAN AND BEIS HAMIKDASH
We can now understand another, related issue. The portable Mishkan, the construction of which is detailed in this parsha, was replaced by the Beis HaMikdash, which was a permanent structure. Although it was many years after klal Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael before the Mishkan fell into disuse, it was clear from the outset that the Mishkan had a limited life and would one day become defunct.
My holy father noted that the very names of these sacred structures reveal the difference in their essence. Mishkan means "dwelling place," indicating that this was essentially a place where the Divine was manifest. Mikdash, on the other hand, means "holy place," for the Beis HaMikdash was primarily a place of exceptional sanctity, qualitatively different from anywhere else on earth. It is important to note that these names were not absolute, but were somewhat interchangeable. The Mishkan was also referred to as a mikdash and the Mikdash was referred to as a mishkan. It is the primary focus that the main name describes.
In the wilderness, klal Yisrael lived on a miraculous plane - they ate the mon, an angelic food which produced absolutely no waste, drank water from the well of Miriam, and lived in the presence of the Divine pillars of cloud and fire. In these circumstances, they already experienced life beyond the norm and did not need their center of worship to be anything other than a focus for God's presence. Thus their Mishkan was just that - a place where God was manifest. This was analogous to the Menorah, which had no rim, symbolizing the absolute lack of distractions and spiritual dangers. Since they lived such miraculous lives, their Mishkan was automatically a mikdash - a place which was different from any other.
Once klal Yisrael entered the land, all of these miracles stopped. They worked the land and lived more normal lives. Of necessity, they became involved with the physical world and were therefore at some risk of falling into materialistic lifestyles. They thus needed a place of religious focus which was different and separated from normal physical life, to remind them that successful Jewish life takes place beyond the material. So they required a mikdash, a place of exceptional holiness, which enabled a primarily agricultural nation to fulfill their spiritual potential. It would then automatically be a mishkan. This concern for the dangers inherent in the more worldly lifestyle of the post-desert generations is similar to the necessity for the golden rim on the three vessels in the Beis HaMikdash, for they remind us to use our powers for Godly, rather than self-oriented, pursuits.
But despite the apparent preference for the desert lifestyle, we can see that the reality of Eretz Yisrael and the vicissitudes of life within it are actually superior. It is clear that one can make matzah only from grains that could, if left for too long, become chametz. This underscores the concept that the greatest kedushah, holiness, is achieved in the arena where there is danger, but it is overcome and utilized for Godliness. As such, the Eretz Yisrael lifestyle is the ideal one, despite the potential dangers inherent within it. This means that the Beis HaMikdash was the greatest expression of klal Yisrael's spirituality. Thus, when they entered the land, they worked toward the day when they would build a mikdash to replace the Mishkan, which had only a temporary role to play.