David’s greatest dream was to build the Beit Hamikdash, a sacred sanctuary for the Jewish people to approach God in prayer and holy service. It is therefore astounding to read the Talmud’s interpretation of his cryptic declaration:
כִּי טוֹב יוֹם בַּחֲצֵרֶיךָ מֵאָלֶף
“Better a day in Your courtyards than a thousand” (Psalms 84:11).
“Better than a thousand” — a thousand what?
“One day that you [David] sit and study Torah is better than a thousand offerings of your son Solomon on the Temple altar.” (Shabbat 30a)
If David’s Torah study was indeed preferable to the Temple service, why did he yearn so keenly to build the Temple?
This Talmudic statement contrasts two very different forms of serving God: the private study and prayers of David, the sweet singer of Israel; and the communal offerings of King Solomon, as he dedicated the new Temple.
These two services of God differ in several ways. David’s was the personal worship of a saintly individual, whereas Solomon’s represented the entire nation. Furthermore, David’s psalms and study were the culmination of a lifetime of efforts to refine himself, morally and spiritually. Solomon’s impressive dedication of the Temple, on the other hand, was the inauguration of a new stage for the spiritual advancement of the nation.
The advantage of the community over the individual is quantitative. The community is composed of many individuals, so progress on the collective level is more significant than the comparable progress of a single person. But in the final analysis, the purpose of the community is to benefit and advance its members. If we need to compare the relative value of a new beginning in the spiritual progress of the nation, versus the pinnacle of individual achievement, we must acknowledge that the very purpose of the collective lies in the success of its members.
“One day in Your courtyards.” A single day in the life of a tzaddik, whose pure soul is illuminated by Torah and prophetic inspiration — this is the ultimate perfection of the individual. Such a day is greater than a multitude of actions that are in essence preparatory acts, designed to inspire the masses to live better and holier lives.
What is the purpose of Temple offerings? Generally speaking, the Temple service, with its beauty and grandeur, should impress upon those who witness its service with a deeper appreciation for כבוד שמים, the greatness and majesty of God’s rule. This is particularly true with regard to the public offering of numerous offerings, like those performed by Solomon at the Temple’s dedication. However, in such instances, the benefit for lofty individuals is minimal.
For this reason, we sometimes find verses that appear to minimize the importance of sacrifices, such as: “I did not rebuke you for not offering sacrifices” (Psalms 50:8), and “I did not speak to your fathers about burnt-offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22). For the nation, the Temple service is an important service of God. But the righteous and holy have already internalized the message of this form of worship.
The nation as a whole needs God’s house standing in all its glory, every detail declaring awe and reverence for God. Through its holy services, the people learn to cultivate a sense of awe and reverence for God. They acquire the foundations of pure morality, grounded in the desire to live according to God’s will. In this way, Solomon’s Temple contributed greatly to the nation’s spiritual progress.
But holy individuals like King David, fully developed in their love of God and knowledge of Torah, dedicated to every holy aspiration — they are the ideal. They are the culmination of all these preparatory efforts to uplift the nation. “Better a day in Your courtyard, than a thousand” offerings in the Temple of your son Solomon.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III 2:55 pp. 91-92)