The daf (Zevachim 117-119) has recently been discussing the period when sacrifices were brought on bamot, private altars, and the ways that such worship is distinct from worship in a central location (bamah gedolah) or in the Mikdash. As an introduction to discussing these differences, I present the following discussion, adapted from my source sheet on Reasons for the Mikdash. See that sheet for the primary sources.
What is the purpose of a Beit HaMikdash? Is it (a) to have a place for the Divine Presence to dwell among us, and sacrifices are brought there because this then naturally becomes the ideal place to connect to and worship God, or is it (b) to have a central, communal place to bring sacrifices?
In the Torah, the emphasis is on the Mikdash as place where God will dwell among Israel (and thus the need to purify it fully once a year, on Yom Kippur, so God can continue to dwell, despite their sins). Perhaps most interesting in this regard is the prayer that Solomon makes in the dedication of the Temple (Kings I: 8.1-64). He begins by emphasizing that this is a place which – paradoxically – houses the Divine Presence (verses 1-16, 27). He then speaks at great length that this is the house in which and towards which people will pray (verses 28-53). Even when it comes to one who has committed a sin, the remedy for this is not a sin-offering, but prayer and repentance (verses 46-50). However, what occurs both before and after this prayer, is the excessive offering of sacrifices (verses 5 62-64). The message seems to be that God’s presence is primary, it then becomes the gateway to God and the place towards which to direct one’s prayers, and that sacrifices are some physical expression of this connection, but not even the primary one.
When we turn to the Medieval commentators, we find that Ramban states (Commentary to Shemot, Introduction and verse 25:2) that the purpose was to have the Divine Presence among them, and that the Mikdash functioned as a Har Sinai in miniature. In contrast, Rambam states (Laws of the Chosen House 1:1, and Book of Mitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 20) that the purpose was to be a place for the bringing of the sacrifices and gathering on the Pilgrimage Festivals. In the Guide (III:45), he repeats his theme in regards to sacrifices – the weaning away of idolatrous worship. Given Rambam’s general downplaying of the inherent significance of sacrifices, it is interesting that he makes this the core purpose of the Mikdash. However, this actually makes a good deal of sense, since Rambam also downplays the physical manifestation of the Divine. Thus, he moves away from that as the reason of the Mikdash, and sees it, together with sacrifices, as serving the function of creating a God-oriented form of sacrificial worship and moving the people away from idolatry.
Another point Rambam makes (III:45) is the impression that a Mikdash and its vessels will make on the person who enters it. Different elements of the Mikdash will instill awe into and teach moral lessonsto such a person, and this will help them develop religiously. Chinukh (Mitzvah 95) develops this point at length, and explains that from a rational perspective one can explain the concept “the dwelling of the Divine presence” to mean that by designating one place as the central place of worship, and by giving it such great honor and respect, people will learn to direct their thoughts to God and to hold God in great reverence and awe. This is consistent with Chinukh’s general approach, which is to see the major goal of mitzvot as improving the moral and religious character of the man or woman who performs them.