Egel and Mishkan
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
Egel and Mishkan
by Rav Avraham Walfish
Last week's and this week's portion provides us with nearly 250 pesukim which describe in excruciating and repetitive detail how the mishkan was constructed. It is undoubtedly important to know that the mishkan was, indeed, constructed. In fact the Ramban, in his introduction to Shemot, explains that the climax of the book is in its last pesukim, which describe how the glory of Hashem fills the newly-consecrated sanctuary. In the Ramban's words:
"The exile is not concluded until they return to their place and to the spiritual level of their fathers, and when they left Egypt, even though they departed from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiled, because they were in a foreign land wandering in the desert. When they came to Mt. Sinai and built a sanctuary and the Holy One, be He blessed returned His Presence to dwell among them, then they returned to the level of their fathers... and then they were considered redeemed, and this is why the book closes with the construction of the sanctuary filled continuously with the glory of Hashem."
Nevertheless it is still not clear why the Torah has to discuss the construction process at such length and in so much detail. As Ramban remarks, in his commentary to Shemot: "It would have been sufficient for the entire matter to say: 'And Moshe told the whole congregation of Israel al the work which Hashem had commanded him' and: 'The Israelites executed everything as God had commanded Moses.'" Beyond specific chiddushim that commentators find in each seemingly repetitive passage (for details see Ramban to 36:8), some commentators have attempted to find a more general message in the Torah's apparent verbosity. Ramban (end of 36:8) finds in the loving attention that the Torah lavishes on the construction process a reflection of the great love that Hashem has for the Mishkan. Other commentators, such as Rav S.R. Hirsch, focus on the symbolic meanings of each of the parts of the Mishkan and suggest that the Torah dwells on the details of the construction to indicate that the workers who performed the construction needed a profound understanding of the significance of each detail in order to endow the structure with its symbolic meaning. Nechama Leibowitz z"l (Commentary to Shemot [Hebrew], pp. 458-461) approvingly cites Moses Mendelssohn's explanation, in his Beiur to Shemot: "Just as Hashem commanded his people to consecrate their firstborn and their first fruits to His name, and Chazal have remarked: 'there is nothing whose beginning is not sanctified to Heaven', so too He wanted them to dedicate to Him the first fruits of their thinking and all other talents pertaining to establishing a society and to consecrate them to His service."
According to Mendelssohn, the Torah concentrates on the labor performed in the construction of the Mishkan, because the labor is significant in itself, not only as a means to the goal of producing the sanctuary. Since all "secular" endeavors are given spiritual meaning by consecrating their "firstfruits" to Hashem, the Torah indicates the spiritual value of all constructive and creative professions necessary for the functioning of a society by describing in detail how the Israelites devoted their first major constructive project to the service of Hashem (for further discussion of this explanation, see Study Question #1).
We may arrive at a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Torah's laboriously detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan by noting the background to our parasha. Between the commandment to construct the Mishkan (parshiyot Terumah-Tetzaveh) and the actual construction in our parasha, the intervening parasha of Ki Tissa describes the fateful events surrounding the golden calf. (Note that I follow Ramban's view, which adheres to the chronological order of the text. According to Rashi to 31:18 some of the points in the ensuing discussion would not hold or would need to be modified, but the basic point would still hold. See Study Question #2.) Following the betrayal of the Second Commandment by Israel in worshipping the golden calf, Hashem announces He will not go up in their midst (33:3) and, in contrast to the promise that He will meet ("ve-no'adti" - 25:22) with Moshe in the Tent of Meeting (28:43, 29:4, etc.: "mo'ed") and "dwell in their midst" (25:8), Moshe establishes a Tent of Meeting ("mo'ed") outside the camp of Israel. Only intensive negotiations by Moshe with Hashem (33:12 etc., 34:9) succeed in persuading Him to go forward with the project of constructing the Mishkan.
The shadow of the golden calf falls over the entire discussion of the construction of the Mishkan. This is indicated already by the first word of the previous parasha: "Vayakhel". This word echoes the opening of the golden calf episode (32:1): "VAYIKAHEL ha-am al Aharon". However the contrast between the two similar words, both translated as "congregating," could not be more stark. In the golden calf episode the Torah employs "vayikahel... AL," indicating a rowdy and quarrelsome congregating (Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). The opening of our parasha describes Moshe convening the entire community ("kol adat Benei Yisrael") in an orderly and respectful convocation.
The full meaning of this wordplay emerges clearly from a careful reading of the golden calf episode. Commentators such as R. Yehuda HaLevi (Kuzari 1:97) and Ramban have observed that the golden calf was not designed to serve as a substitute for Hashem, but rather for Moshe (see Study Question #3). This is, nonetheless, a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids use of forms or images for worship of Hashem. However, the sin of the golden calf was not merely a technical violation of a formal commandment, but rather a case study of the features which characterize idolatrous worship.
The golden calf episode is framed by the word "arise" ("kum" - 32:1, 6). The first use of this word indicates the sense of urgency felt by the people, who demand of Aharon that he arouse himself and hasten to assuage the people's anxieties by replacing their lost leader Moshe with a visible symbol of the divine presence. The second use of the word "kum" represents the culmination of the sin - "vayakumu letzachek". This is the point where the narration of the sin breaks off and Hashem commands Moshe to go down from the mountain. It seems that until this point the people have not passed the point of no return. What is the terrible sin of "vayakumu letzachek," which makes it the climax of the golden calf? Midrashim (see Rashi) find many sinister overtones associated with the verb "letzachek," but the peshat meaning seems clear (see Ramban and Benno Jacob): after sitting down to eat and drink, the people are in a mood of joyous and boisterous levity. This is why, when Moshe descends from the mountain, he discerns unlike his disciple Yehoshua that the cries emanating from the encampment of Israel are not war cries but rather cries of boisterousness (see Ibn Ezra and Benno Jacob to 32:19).
The Torah regards the levity indicated by "vaykumu letzachek" with grave seriousness (see Study Question #4). Until this stage, Aharon still has a measure of control over the people, he can still attempt to steer their spiritual needs and yearnings towards proper worship of and belief in Hashem, despite their apparent need for pagan-like modes of representing God. The rowdy revelry fueled by "eating and drinking" (32:6) is both thoroughly pagan and uncontrollable. Perhaps we should reformulate this: thoroughly pagan BECAUSE uncontrollable. Hashem desires worship of people who are in control of their faculties and can observe the boundaries and proprieties associated with nearness to the divine Presence (see Study Question #5). Once the people have reached the point of rowdiness, they have gone completely beyond the bounds where Hashem can recognize the golden calf as a form of His worship, albeit illegitimate, and He now can regard their behavior only as idolatrous.
The use of the verb "kum" at the beginning and at the climax of the sin of the golden calf focuses our attention on the underlying spiritual problem associated with this story: the people have "lost it". The profound anxiety with which they urge Aharon to "arise" culminates in the orgiastic abandon with which they "arise" from their eating and drinking at the end of the narrative. At the beginning of the story, they are distraught because they fear they have lost their leader. At the end of the story, they have gone beyond the bounds where their replacement leader can have any influence upon them. The Torah sums up Moshe's understanding of the sin and its consequences with the following words (32:25): "And Moshe saw the people, that they were out of control ("parua"), for Aharon had let it get out of hand " The "hikahel al" which opens the golden calf episode also symbolizes its underlying meaning. The pagan behavior of the people is rooted in their inability to act coherently as a society and results in their careering completely out of control. Only drastic and decisive action on the part of Moshe, breaking the luchot and sending thee Levites on a mission of mass executions, is able to restore the people to a sense of sobriety and an awareness of their true station.
Against this backdrop we can understand the purpose of Moshe's convening ("vayakhel") the people at the beginning of parashat Vayakhel. Moshe wants the entire people (see Ramban to beginning of the parasha) to congregate in an orderly and purposeful fashion in order to counteract the "vayikahel ha-am al Aharon," which initiates and symbolizes the golden calf. The people's response to Moshe's instructions regarding the building of the Mishkan is highly gratifying. Indeed one might legitimately term the Mishkan project the most successful building drive in history. As described in pesukim 35:21-36:7 there is a tremendous outpouring of desire to contribute to the Mishkan and participate in its construction. Note the appearance in these pesukim of various sectors of the population: men and women, artisans and skilled women, princes. Especially noteworthy in these pesukim are the frequent repetition of the word "all" ("kol" - fourteen times in pesukim 35:21-29 alone) and the repeated stress that all contributions, whether of labor or of material, were made out of a voluntary desire to contribute: nesiut lev (35:21, 26, 36:2), nedivut lev (35:22, 29, compare 355:21: "nadva rucho"). Clearly the Torah wants us to appreciate how deeply motivated the people are to contribute.
So deeply do the people feel the need to contribute that the workmen in charge of the building come to Moshe to complain (36:5): "The people are bringing too much" and the command is issued to stop (!) bringing contributions. The enormity of the people's desire to contribute bears comparison with the depth of the people's need for the golden calf in the previous parasha. Indeed there is a midrash which notes the comparison: when the people are told to contribute to the golden calf they do so and when they are told to contribute to the Mishkan they do so. The import of the midrash is ironic: the people seem to be so eager for a palpable representation of Hashem's presence that they will readily give to any project, legitimate or illegitimate, done for that purpose.
However the comparison between the giving to the golden calf and to the Mishkan may be seen in a different light: the latter serves to atone for the former. In order to support this way of understanding the relationship between the two projects we may note that there is significant differences between the way in which the people express their desire for the golden calf and for the Mishkan. The building of the golden calf is a one-man affair, done by Aharon alone. The people, while they feel an overwhelming need to have this physical symbol, are confined to a one-time gift of golden earrings. The Torah does not stress the quantity of the gift, its encompassing the entire social spectrum, or the outpouring of volunteer spirit that motivates it, as our parasha does. This seems to suggest that one of the differences between the golden calf and the Mishkan is that the power of the golden calf lies entirely in the FORM itself, whereas the power of the Mishkan is rooted - at least partially - in the PROCESS by means of which it is constructed. Only a sanctuary produced, in response to Hashem's express command, by the willing participation of the entire people can serve as a vehicle for the divine Presence (see Study Question #6).
We may further suggest that the profundity of the people's desire to contribute to the Mishkan may stem, in part, from their sense of guilt and shame at having worshipped the golden calf. After having experienced the removal of Hashem's Presence from their encampment, they are eager to atone for their sin and for Hashem to show His reconciliation with them by restoring His Presence. The universality and eagerness of their participation in the construction reflects the depth of their shame and of their need for atonement.
The overwhelming urges and anxieties revealed in the golden calf episode, even if some of them stem from worthwhile desires, can only lead to the disintegration of the society and of the spiritual personality. The Mishkan serves as atonement for the golden calf, inasmuch as it reflects the proper balance, within the society as well as the personality, between admirable desires and a controlling will capable of channeling these desires in positive directions.
1. Go through Vayakhel and Pekudei, and list the professions which were employed for the construction of the Mishkan. Are these professions enough to ensure the functioning of society?
a. Mendelssohn supports his contention that the kinds of work described in our parasha represent all work essential for the functioning of society by referring to a statement by Chazal that (in Mendelssohn's words): "All work that was not in the Mishkan is not considered work." The source for this statement is Bava Kama 2a. See Tosafot s.v. Hachi Garsinan - which girsa is Mendelssohn following? Would the other girsa substantially affect Mendelssohn's conclusions? Why?
b. The gemara there discusses the difference between avot and toladot. How might the concept of av-tolada support Mendelssohn's theory?
c. Look at the list of 39 melakhot in Mishna Shabbat 7:2 and divide it into sections. What is the principle governing the division of these melakhot, and how may this help us to support Mendelssohn's idea?
2. What points in our discussion of the impact of the golden calf episode would need to be changed if we accept Rashi's account of the chronology of the golden calf and the Mishkan construction?
3. Find support in the golden calf episode (32:1-6) for each of R. Yehuda HaLevi's and Ramban's claims: (1) that the golden calf was a substitute for Moshe, (2) that it was not a substitute for Hashem. In what sense can the golden calf serve as a substitute for Moshe?
4. In what other biblical story is the term "letzachek" used to show the complete spiritual disintegration of a personality?
a. How do midrashim and commentators understand the term in that story?
b. Can the term be interpreted in that story in light of the way we understood it here?
5. The idea that worship of God and approaching His Presence demands full control of one's faculties and full awareness of boundaries and proprieties may be demonstrated from the story of Nadav and Avihu and its immediate aftermath. How?
Prove from the story of Matan Torah that the advent of the divine Presence requires careful observance of boundaries.
Is the eating and drinking described in 24:11 similar to or different from the eating and drinking associated with the golden calf? How do you know? (Note the dispute regarding the meaning of "lo shalakh yado" and the midrash identifying the "na'arei Benei Yisrael" as Nadav and Avihu).
6. The idea that there is a difference between the power attributed to the golden calf and the way in which the Mishkan derives its meaning and sanctity may be related to the blessing which Moshe confers upon the people upon completion of the construction work (39:43), as cited by the Midrash Tanchuma (#11): "May it be His will that the Shekhina may dwell on the work of your hands". How?