Pennsylvania Station was completed in 1910, and was razed in 1963. The station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White, and was modeled after monumental, ancient buildings. If we look up Pennsylvania Station on the Internet (and if you remember the station if you are old enough), we can see (or remember) the grandeur, the majesty, of Penn Station.
The present Grand Central Terminal (not, I emphasize, Grand Central Station) was built in 1913. Grand Central Terminal owes its existence to the destruction of Penn Station. The razing of Penn Station was the impetus to the Landmarks Preservation Act, enabling all of us to enter Grand Central Terminal, and gaze up the ceiling in the main hall, and see the zodiac. We can admire the lavish use of marble, the vast spaces, and, there is no other word for it, the majesty of Grand Central Terminal.
Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, like Union Station in St. Louis or Washington, D.C., or Kansas City, Missouri, or Chicago, were designed to make the traveler start or finish his journey with a sense of wonder. In particular, the stations were a gateway to the cities. The stations were grand, a reflection of the cities they inhabited. You knew that New York City would be great, because a great building welcomed you.
Should you spare fewer expenses when you are building a house for God? The Torah describes the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in lavish terms. There is gold all around. There are skins of rare animals. There are goat wool, ram skins, and precious stones in abundance. The Torah says that God dictated the architecture, and the Torah say that God was the interior decorator. I believe that God, who made the universe and set in motion supernovas, black holes, nebulas spawning stars, would have been more than satisfied if the Israelites build God a humble home.
But the Israelites, like the people who built Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, wanted a home for God that reflects God’s glory and majesty. I can see the design committee posing this proposition: “if we build a humble home for God, strangers would say, ‘Your God is a puny God and your sanctuary betrays God’s powerlessness.'”
And not only strangers. If we want to sacrifice an animal for forgiveness, we need to ensure that the God we are sacrificing to is so powerful to forgive us. If we want to cast the Urim and Thummim to see what the outcome of a battle will be, we need to ensure that the God who predicts the outcome is too powerful to err.
The Mishkan was a cozy place, unlike the Temples that followed it. The Mishkan did not make the individual Israelites feel small; it made God big. It was the Grand Central Terminal or Pennsylvania Station of its day.