King David’s greatest — albeit unfilled — dream was to build the Beit Hamikdash, a central place to worship God in Jerusalem. It is therefore astounding to read the Talmud’s interpretation of his cryptic declaration, “For better a day in Your courtyard than a thousand” (Ps. 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 preferable to the Temple service, why did David yearn so keenly to build the Temple?
This Talmudic statement contrasts two very different forms of serving God: David’s Torah study and prayers, as a pious individual, the psalmist and sweet singer of Israel; and his son Solomon’s public offerings as king, dedicating the new Temple. These two forms differ in a number of ways. David’s was a private service of God, while Solomon’s represented the entire nation. Furthermore, David’s personal service was the culmination of his lifetime efforts to perfect himself, morally and spiritually. Solomon’s impressive dedication of the Temple, on the other hand, was the inauguration of a new stage and a new medium for the spiritual advancement of the nation.
The advantage of the community (the klal) over the individual is quantitative. The community is composed of many individuals, so that progress on the collective level is more significant than the comparable progress of a single person. But in the final analysis, the goal of the community is to benefit and advance its members. So if we need to compare the relative value of a new beginning in spiritual growth of the community, 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 filled with 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, meant to inspire the people to live higher, holier lives.
What is the purpose of Temple offerings? Generally speaking, the Temple service, with its beauty and grandeur, serves to impress upon those present a deeper appreciation for God’s honor - kevod Shamayim. This is particularly true with regard to the public offering of many offerings, like those performed by Solomon at the Temple’s dedication. In such instances, the benefit for lofty individuals is limited.
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” (Ps. 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 a very important service of God. But the righteous and holy, have already assimilated the inner 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 appreciate the inspiring emotions of God’s honor. They acquire the foundations of a pure morality, based on the growing desire to follow God’s ways. In this way, Solomon’s offerings contributed greatly to the nation’s spiritual advance.
But for holy individuals like King David, fully developed in their love of God and knowledge of Torah, dedicated to all holy aspirations — 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 [Temple offerings].”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 91-92)