Parashat Ki-Tisa: The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Construction of the Mishkan

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

CHASSIDUT
by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 

ParAshat Ki tisa

 

The Sin of the Golden calf

 

and the construction of the Mishkan

 

Rav Itamar Eldar

 

 

In our parasha, we read about the great tragedy that befell the people of Israel, which just yesterday had experienced a miraculous Divine revelation, and now sinks to the depths of the sin of the golden calf, punishment for which would be visited upon Israel for many generations to come.

 

Between the sin of the golden calf mentioned in our parasha and the two-fold assembly at Mount Sinai – the giving of the Ten Commandments described in parashat Yitro and the covenant of the basins found at the end of parashat Mishpatim – we find the parashiyot of Teruma and Tetzave, in which God commands the people of Israel about the construction of the Mishkan. This command is carried out in the coming parashiyot, Vayakhel and Pikudei, following the sin of the golden calf.

 

This location of the story of the golden calf brought the great biblical commentators to disagree about the order of the events under discussion. Thus writes Rashi:

 

There is no "earlier" or "later" [= no chronological order] in the events related in the Torah: in fact the incident of the golden calf happened a considerable time before the command regarding the work of the Mishkan was given. For on the seventeenth of Tammuz were the Tablets broken and on Yom Kippur God became reconciled with Israel, and on the next day, the eleventh of Tishrei, they began to bring their contribution for the Mishkan which was set upon the first of Nissan. (Rashi, Shemot 31:18)

 

            Even though the command regarding the Mishkan appears before the sin of the golden calf, Rashi maintains that the sin of the golden calf preceded that by many days. He bases this claim on the principle that there is no chronological order in the events related in the Torah.

 

            The Ramban disagrees, writing as follows:

 

By way of proper interpretation of Scripture, Moshe was commanded about the building of the Mishkan prior to the incident of the golden calf, and when the Holy One, blessed be He, became reconciled to him and promised him that He would cause His Divine Glory to dwell among them, Moshe understood of his own accord that the command concerning the Mishkan remained valid as before, and he then commanded Israel regarding it, as I have explained in the section of Vayakhel. (Vayikra 8:2)

 

            The Ramban argues that the command concerning the Mishkan had already been given prior to the incident of the golden calf. But despite its chronological primacy, the very fact that in the aftermath of that sin, God did not go back on his intention to rest His Shekhina in the Mishkan that was eventually to be constructed, teaches us that God had become reconciled with Moshe and forgave Israel for their sin. The building of the Mishkan after the sin is therefore significant.

 

            The disagreement regarding the order of the events is not only a disagreement about chronological order. The question whether or not the command concerning the Mishkan preceded the sin of the golden calf has ramifications regarding a fundamental issue relating to the very essence of the Mishkan.

 

            According to the Ramban, the fact that the command concerning the Mishkan preceded the sin of the golden calf teaches us that the Mishkan was built lekhatchila, in ideal manner, and not as a response to a certain event. He writes as follows:

 

The secret of the Mishkan is that the glory which abode upon Mount Sinai [openly] should abide upon it in a concealed manner. For just as it is said there, "And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai" (Shemot 24:16), and it is further written, "Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness" (Devarim 5:21), so it is written of the Mishkan, "And the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:34). Twice is this verse, "And the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan," mentioned in connection with the Mishkan, to correspond with "His glory and His greatness." Thus Israel always had with them in the Mishkan the glory which appeared to them on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe went into the Mishkan, he would hear the Divine utterance being spoken to him in the same way as on Mount Sinai. Thus just as it is said at the giving of the Torah, "Our of heaven He made you to hear His voice, that He might instruct you; and upon earth He made you to see His great fire" (Devarim 4:36), so it is written of the Mishkan, "And he heard the voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover… from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him" (Bamidbar 7:89). The expression "speaking unto him" is mentioned here twice in order to indicate that which the Rabbis said in the Tradition that the Voice would come from heaven to Moshe from upon the ark-cover, and from there He spoke with him; for every Divine utterance with Moshe came from heaven during daytime, and was heard from between the two cherubim, similar to what is said, "And you did hear His words out of the midst of the fire" (Devarim 4:36). It is for this reason the the two cherubim were made of gold. And Scripture so states: "Where I will meet with you, to speak there unto you; and it shall be sanctified by My glory" (Shemot 29:42-43). For there [in the Mishkan] will be the appointed place for the Divine utterance, "and it will be sanctified by My glory."  (Ramban, Shemot 25:1)

 

            The Mishkan, according to the Ramban, is a direct continuation of the assembly at Mount Sinai, and in essence constitutes  a "moving Mount Sinai" that allows for God's constant revelation among the people of Israel. The Ramban proves this point from the similarity between the description of the resting of God's Shekhina on Mount Sinai and that of the resting of His Shekhina in the Mishkan.

 

            On the other hand, saying that the sin of the golden calf preceded the command concerning the Mishkan makes room for a wide variety of possibilities to understand the Mishkan as a response, an answer, a repair or, in general terms, a consequence of the sin of the golden calf. From this perspective, it is very possible that had Israel not sinned with the golden calf, the Mishkan would never have been constructed. It must be clarified how exactly the Mishkan constitutes a response to the sin of the golden calf.[1]

 

The two midrashim that follow view the building of the Mishkan as a response to the sin of the golden calf in two different ways:

 

"These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Testimony." The Mishkan of Testimony is testimony for all who come into the world that the Holy One, blessed be He, has been reconciled with Israel. A parable: To what is the matter comparable? To a king who took a wife and loved her excessively. He became angry with her and left her. Her woman neighbors said to her: He will not return to you. After some days the king was reconciled to her and entered his palace with her, where he ate and drank. Now her neighbors would not believe that he had been reconciled to her; but when there was an aroma in the heavens over her, they immediately knew that the king had been reconciled to her. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, loved Israel, gave them the Torah, and called them a priestly kingdom and holy nation. At the end of forty days they made the calf and said: "This is your god, O Israel." In that hour the nations of the world said: The Holy one, blessed be He, will never again be reconciled to them. When Moshe arose and prayed for them, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "I have pardoned them as you asked" (Numbers 14:20). Moshe said: Who will inform the nations? He said to him: Let them make Me a sanctuary. When the nations of the world saw the incense rising from the Mishkan, they understood that the Holy One, blessed be He, had become reconciled with them. (Tanhuma, Pekudei 6)

 

            According to this midrash, the Mishkan which is called the "Mishkan of testimony" is testimony to all of mankind that God had become reconciled with His people and forgave them for their sin. The "sweet savor" that testifies that God became reconciled with Israel symbolizes God's making peace with "the impulse of man's heart" (Bereishit 8:21) and His readiness to forgive him. As explained by the Ramban, the very fact that God was ready to rest His Shekhina among Israel teaches that He forgave them.[2]

 

            The second midrash, so it seems, goes one step further:

 

It can be compared to a young man who came to a city and found the people thereof collecting money for charity, and when they asked him also to subscribe, he went on giving until they had to tell him that he had already given enough. Further on his travels, he lighted on a place where they were collecting for a theater, and when asked to contribute towards it, he was also so generous the he had to be told, "Enough." Israel, likewise, contributed so much towards the golden calf that they had to be told "Enough," and they also contributed gold so generously towards the construction of the Mishkan that they again had to be told "Enough," as it is said: "For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much" (Shmemot 26:7). The Holy one, blessed be He, thereupon said: "Let the gold of the Mishkan atone for the gold they brought towards the making of the golden calf." Further did God say to Israel: "When you made the calf, you provoked Me to anger by exclaiming: "This (eleh) is your god," but now that you have built the Mishkan with the word "eleh," I have become reconciled to you." Hence, "These (eleh) are the accounts of the Mishkan." God said unto Israel: "Just as in this world I have become reconciled unto you by means of the word "eleh," so in the World-to-Come," because it says: "Behold these (eleh) shall come from far; and, lo, these (eleh) from the north and from the west, and these (eleh) from the land of Sinim (Yeshaya 49:12); and also: "Who are these (eleh) that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their cotes?" (ibid. 58:8). (Shemot Rabba 51, 8)

 

            According to this midrash, the Mishkan does not testify to the reconciliation, but rather it brings it about. The gold that the people of Israel must contribute for the construction of the Mishkan is an act of repair and repentance for their having brought gold for the fashioning of the calf. The silver that the people of Israel bring, about which it is stated, "These ('eleh') are the accounts of the Mishkan" is a repair of their cry during the sin of the golden calf, "This ('eleh') is your god, O Israel."

 

            The significance that this explanation attaches to the Mishkan seems to be entirely after the fact, for the building of the Mishkan, according to this midrash, is a repair for the sin of the golden calf. Repair is only necessary when something is broken. In the absence of something broken, there is no need for repair.[3]

 

            The relationship between the sin of the golden calf and the Mishkan also engaged the great Chassidic thinkers. Let us examine what they had to say on the matter.

 

BELIEF IN MIRACLES AND BELIEF IN NATURE

 

            We have seen how the Midrash focuses on the "testimony," and how the Mishkan constitutes a response to the sin of the golden calf and testimony to Israel's pardon. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev has a different understanding of the "testimony" of the Mishkan. He writes as follows:

 

According to this, we shall explain to you why on Pesach we are commanded to eat matza and also to offer sacrifices in the Temple that are matza, whereas on Shavu'ot the two loaves were chametz, and the thanksgiving offering is partly matzah and partly chametz. The reason is that matzah alludes to the way people worship God, blessed be He, because of His miracles. This is also indicated by the plain sense [of Scripture], for the mitzva is to eat matza in order to remember that the Egyptians were rushing them to leave, as it is stated (Shemot 12:39): "And they baked the dough, etc." And similarly the eating of the korban pesach indicates the haste. These remembrances serve as a reminder that we apprehended Him by way of His miracles. When, however, they reached Mount Sinai, they recognized the truth, and the miracle was not deemed important because of the miracle itself. For they understood that God alone created everything by His word, and so He is capable of changing them. Thus, they did not have to serve Him because of their apprehension of the miracles and the wonders. Therefore, God did not command that the offering of Shavu'ot must be brought as matza, for matza indicates apprehension by way of miracles and wonders, and on the holiday of Shavu'ot they did not have to worship Him in this manner. Now, a thanksgiving offering was brought for a miracle, as they say (Berakhot 54b): "Four are required to offer thanksgiving." Now, when the Holy One, blessed be He, performs a miracle for a person, he first comprehends the miracle, and afterwards, because God had performed the miracle for him, he remains constant in his worship, and thus comes to the level that they had reached at the assembly at Mount Sinai. What helps him reach this level is the fact that we had already apprehended this at Sinai. He, therefore, brings a thanksgiving offering composed of matza and chametz, which alludes to the two aforementioned aspects, one before the miracle and one after the miracle. Now, when they constructed the golden calf, they lost their comprehension of worship in these two aspects. It was only when they constructed the Mishkan that they returned to the first aspect of His service, blessed be He, based on miracles. But the aspect of the assembly at Mount Sinai is only when someone worships Him, blessed be He, constantly and with total dedication. Then he merits this aspect little by little as he improves his ways. Now, the Ramban of blessed memory writes that the worship of God, blessed be He, based on His miracles, is called "testimony," for it testifies to Him, blessed be He. This stands in contrast to one who recognizes His true essence, He having created everything; he sees with the eye of his mind that everything exists because of Him, blessed be He. The word pikudei may be understood in the sense of "lacking," as in "and not one man of us is missing." This is the allusion in the verse, "These are the accounts of the Mishkan," namely, a lacking in the Mishkan, for even though the aspect of worship because of His miracles was restored to them, nevertheless there was a deficiency in this, in that it does not constitute perfect service. The verse explains the deficiency when it says, "the Mishkan of testimony." The deficiency is that they gained only the worship called "testimony," as mentioned above, and not worship based on the recognition of the truth as there was at Sinai. (Kedushat Levi, Pekudei)

 

            R. Levi Yitzchak describes here two approaches to the service of God.

 

The first, "because of their apprehension of the miracles and the wonders," "by way of His miracles." This apprehension finds expression in the exodus from Egypt. The second, "recognizing His true essence, He having created everything." This comprehension finds expression on Shavu'ot. We shall try to examine more closely these two types of apprehension.

 

R. Levi Yitzchak cites in the name of the Ramban that the first apprehension is called "testimony," because the miracles and wonders testify to God. When the people of Israel left Egypt, God split not only the Red Sea, but also all the frameworks and limitations of nature, thus exposing the Jewish people to a reality that is not natural and that lacks logic and order. This is the miracle that testifies that all power lies exclusively in the hands of He who performed the miracle. The faith and service that rest on this "testimony" require constant connection to those miracles that testify to the Creator whom we worship.

 

This faith, it would seem, is reminiscent of the position of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi in his Kuzari. When the chaver was asked about his belief, he responded to the king of the Khazars as follows:

 

I believe in the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moshe with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant, and threats to the disobedient. Our belief is comprised in the Torah – a very large domain. (Kuzari, I, 11)

 

            The king of Khazars is astonished by this answer in that it relates to a specific historic event, and not to the fundamental definition of God as Creator. The chaver explains that our obligation to God came into being as a result of an encounter that cannot be denied, where God acted on our behalf in a supernatural way, leaving us with absolute certainty regarding His existence and powers.

 

            This is the "testimony" about which R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is speaking, that which gives the people of Israel faith and certainty in His existence and power. This is also the eating of matza that echoes the breach of the frameworks of nature and the change of its order. It finds expression in the dimension of "haste" which involves a departure from the regular order, a "skipping," a "passing over" of stages and laws.

 

However, R. Levi Yitzchak does not remain at this level of belief; he wishes to climb up to a higher level, which rests on "a recognition of the truth," a recognition that had been acquired at the assembly at Mount Sinai. This recognition brings the people of Israel to the creation of the world, from which R. Yehuda Ha-Levi's chaver tried to flee. Recognition of the creation of the world fashions a world of faith, where the borders between nature and miracle are blurred. The created world, asserts R. Levi Yitzchak, is nature, but its very creation is a miracle, and in this sense it turns nature into a miracle. Thus writes R. Nachman of Breslov:

 

In truth, we cannot understand what is nature and providence, for even nature is His providence, blessed be He. It is impossible for man to understand two things as one, namely, nature, which in truth is His providence, blessed be He. (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 17)

 

            When God is perceived as the Creator in an active manner, and not merely in a historical manner, the boundary between nature and miracle becomes blurred: "For they understood that God alone created everything by His word, and so He is capable of changing them." Thus, a person who contemplates the world in this manner lives with the sense of "He who told the oil to burn will tell the vinegar to vinegar to burn" (Ta'anit 25a).[4] From this perspective, a person does not inquire about the miracles performed in this world, because he sees the natural world as an embodiment of the miracle and wonder of God as the world's creator and maintainer. This is bread, which, in contrast to matza, expresses the natural world, the world of sowing, plowing, harvesting, grinding, kneading, and baking.

 

            The manna whose taste, according to certain midrashim, was the taste of matza, gives expression to the "testimony" discussed by R. Levi Yitzchak, which created the Jewish people's obligation to God, as proposed by R. Yehuda Ha-Levi. An obligation that rests on a recognition of His wonders, and draws its vitality from His miracles. However, a higher level is eating the bread of nature, out of a profound recognition that there is no difference between manna and bread, for "man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live" (Devarim 8:3).

 

            Faith from the perspective of continuous creation is superior to faith resting on the "testimony" of miracles, for on the level of the latter faith, a person stands constantly before his God and sees His wonders. When faith rests on the "testimony of miracles," God hides in nature and breaks out for moment in the guise of a miracle. In contrast, when faith rests on continuous creation, God appears at all times in natural governance, and nature does not confuse a person or divert him from openly seeing God.

 

            According to R. Levi Yitzchak, Israel acquired this elevated faith at Mount Sinai, where God appeared to them in an unmediated manner. The Sinai experience, as opposed to the exodus from Egypt, did not breach the laws of nature in a radical manner, at least according to the plain meaning of the scriptural text. A parted sea is no doubt more impressive than a heavy cloud and thick darkness, but at Mount Sinai the emphasis was not upon the miracle, but on the unmediated manner in which God appeared with His voice and His speech before the people of Israel. From that time, Israel acquired the elevated faith of seeing the revelation of God in the entire creation, and they were able to burst out in song over every opening of an eye or move of a hand, just as they had sung at the Red Sea.

 

The Mishkan – contraction

 

            Against the background of this spiritual level, we come to the terrible tragedy of the sin of the golden calf, and in a moment, the people of Israel lose both levels of faith. The Mishkan, according to R. Levi Yitzchak, restores to Israel the first level of faith – the faith of testimony – and therefore the Mishkan is called "the Mishkan of testimony."

 

            The following passage explains why the Mishkan was effective regarding the first level, but not the second level:

 

And similarly we find in parashat Tisa in the command regarding the work of the Mishkan that it was stated following the sin, as Rashi explains there on the verse, "And He gave to Moshe, when He had made an end" (Shemot 31:18). And even according to what the Ramban of blessed memory says (beginning of parashat Vayakhel) that everything appears in order and they were commanded about the work of the Mishkan prior to the sin of the [golden] calf, nevertheless the matter of the command of the work of the Mishkan was only because God, blessed be He, saw in advance that they would sin, and to repair the sin they would need the Mishkan. For were it not for the sin, it would have been proper for the Shekhina to be in the lower world everywhere that Israel dwells, as was the case prior to the sin of the first man, and for the entire camp of Israel to have the sanctity of the place of the Mishkan. (Peri Tzadik, Vaetchanan 5)

 

            R. Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin categorically states that the Mishkan was a direct response and result of the sin of the golden calf. Were it not for that sin, there would have been no need for the Mishkan, and God’s mode of governance would have been entirely different.[5] The fitting mode of Divine governance, according to R. Tzadok ha-Kohen is "for the Shekhina to be in the lower world everywhere that Israel dwells… and for the entire camp of Israel to have the sanctity of the place of the Mishkan." The Mishkan, teaches us R. Tzadok, is an aspect of contraction, for while on the one hand   the very building of the Mishkan allows for a revelation of the Shekhina, on the other hand it restricts it to place, time, and person. Only in the Mikdash, only at a certain time, and only to certain people.[6]

 

            This contraction, according to R. Tzadok, is a direct result of the sin of the golden calf. Thus, the Mishkan is an expression of the descent of Divine governance from the aspect of "there is no place empty of Him," at least with respect to the Jewish people, to the aspect of "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary." R. Tzadok does not explain why it was specifically the sin of the golden calf that caused this fall, but there seems to be no difficulty finding the connection. The process leading to the golden calf began with Moshe's absence and with the difficulty that it raised for the people of Israel:

 

And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aharon, and said to Him, Rise up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this man Moshe, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Shemot 32:1)

 

            The people of Israel developed a dependence upon Moshe's leadership and connected it to closeness with God; thus, in the absence of Moshe, it is necessary to form a "god." The experience of Divine revelation at Mount Sinai was not directed in the right direction. Instead of seeing how the Divine presence to which Israel merited at Mount Sinai opens a new window to reflection upon the work of creation from the perspective of revelation, Israel wished to constrict their perspective to a material, defined, and designated object, which would be defined as a "the realm of the holy." The people of Israel chose the narrow and defined Divine revelation, and wished to realize it through the calf, the product of human hands. Instead of the world, the handicraft of God, being His dwelling place, they wished to rest God in the work of flesh and blood, and thus, by they very fact that the work of man is limited in time and place, so too is Divine revelation similarly limited.

 

            The Mishkan, in great measure, is a response to Israel's request expressed through the sin of the golden calf. The Mishkan is also the product of human hands, and it too limits the Divine revelation to time and place. We can now return to the words of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

 

            When the calf was completed, the people of Israel cried out: "This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." R. Levi Yitzchak teaches us that, with this cry, the people of Israel did two things.

 

            First, they lowered the consiousness of faith from the level of recognizing the full presence of God as creator and maintainer of the universe to that of "testimony" through the miracles that God performed for Israel: "This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." This call returns Israel to the consciousness of the exodus from Egypt, rather than to the consciousness of the Sinai experience. Israel once again take hold of the manifest miracles that they had merited, and thus return to the original, restricted consciousness, according to which God reveals Himself at certain moments through a breach in the laws of nature. This testimony of Israel is, however, "false testimony," for the people of Israel relate these manifest miracles to a material creation, the golden calf.

 

            According to R. Levi Yitzchak, the Mishkan leaves Israel at the level to which they had fallen at the time of the sin of the golden calf. It repairs the "false testimony," and establishes in its place "the Mishkan of testimony" which attests to the true Miracle Maker, but it leaves the faith, the religious consciousness and the Divine service on the level of "testimony." The Mishkan, as we saw with R. Tzadok, restricts the Divine governance to time and place, just as the consciousness of miracles restricts Divine revelation to miracles.

 

            When the people of Israel constitute the Shekhina's dwelling place, the miracle becomes embodied in nature and in the natural governance under which Israel lives. God lives in every house, in every act and in every movement, and the entire world says "Glory." In a world in which the Mishkan is built and into which the Divine presence flows, nature once again "conceals," and the mundane is mundane and the holy is holy. In such a world, only a miracle allows for a connection with the holy and with revelation; nature is silent.

 

            R. Levi Yitzchak adds that while the Mishkan repaired the "false testimony" and left Israel in the original faith of the exodus from Egypt, the second story of faith – recognition of the truth of God and His being the creator – can be built through the total dedication of each and every Jew. Such dedication allows a person to leave the framework of the natural world, its laws and its limits. At the foundation of dedication, stands the recognition that the entire world is in essence a garment and cover for the Divine revelation to which we strive. One who is ready to dedicate his life for the sake of God fashions his life according to other standards, and bestows inner, spiritual meaning to the entire world around him. In the words of R. Levi Yitzchak: He turns nature into a miracle, and in that way he slowly restores the elevated faith that had been acquired at Mount Sinai and had slipped away in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf.

 

If the sin of the golden calf gives expression to the contraction of the Divine revelation, and the Mishkan, in great measure, adopts this contraction, both from the aspect of miraculous governance versus natural governance, according to R. Levi Yitzchak, and from the aspect of the Divine presence in the entire world versus a world that distinguishes between holy and mundane, according to R. Tzadok – through dedication the limits are once again breached and the Divine presence once again spreads through the entire world.

 

We shall do and we shall hear – Spiritual world versus material world

 

We have seen that there are those who wish to see the Mishkan as an expression of the contraction of Divine appearance and the faith therein. It seems that the Sefat Emet wishes to go one step further. He writes as follows:

 

"These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony." It serves as testimony that the Holy One, blessed be He, forgave [Israel] for the sin of the [golden] calf. And in the Gemara: It is testimony that the Shekhina dwells in Israel. For the Mishkan was a repair of the sin; before the sin there was no need for service through acts and work. Because they had stated "We shall do" before "We shall hear," the strength of doing was entirely abolished. After they sinned with an action, it was necessary to clarify the matter by way of an action, by constructing the Mishkan in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent, blessed be He, as it is written, "As He commanded." (Sefat Emet, Pekudei, 5635)

 

Prior to the sin, asserts the Sefat Emet, Israel merited a level in which "the strength of doing was entirely abolished." They merited this level by saying "We shall do" before "We shall hear." So too he writes in a different passage:

 

For the root of the Torah is above, as it is written: "It is hidden from the eyes of all living" (Iyyov 28:21). Only through effacement in Him, blessed be He, do the people of Israel merit to draw the light of Torah among them. The people of Israel merited this when they said "We shall do" before they said "We shall hear." For through such dedication, the people of Israel rise above the material garment. Just as they were at the giving of the Torah like ministering angels. But after the sin we lost this level. (Sefat Emet, Teruma, 5644)

 

Like R. Levi Yitzchak, the Sefat Emet sees in the dedication that comes to expression in Israel's call of "We shall do and we shall hear" the way to elevate oneself above the material world. The Mishkan service is entirely material service. From the Mishkan itself fashioned out of gold, silver, copper and other materials, through the sacrifices, the meal-offerings, the blood, the slaughter, the eating and the drinking that make up the day to day service. This "material service," asserts the Sefat Emet, is a direct result of the sin of the golden calf. Once again the connection is clear, for the golden calf was Israel's attempt to actualize their service in a concrete and tangible manner.

 

And once again the Mishkan serves as an answer to this need of Israel. Israel's dedication when they proclaimed "We shall do" before "We shall hear" stemmed from the readiness to rise above their understanding, their consciousness, and their comprehension, and thus, to emancipate themselves from the material and the limiting. Thus Israel went beyond their limits and merited the level of "ministering angels." This emancipation liberated them also from the need for material service.

 

Israel's request for the golden calf relates to the level of their understanding – "We know not what is become of him." The people of Israel suddenly wish to know, to understand, to place "We shall hear" before "We shall do," and thus they once again adopt human limitations. Thus, it was only the "golden calf" that could satisfy the spiritual needs of the people of Israel, when that need takes into account the limitations of understanding and the senses.

 

The Mishkan too, asserts the Sefat Emet, recognizes this limitation, and proposes to the people of Israel "material service" that will make room also for the material-sensual need of Israel.[7]

 

The Mishkan, according to this, contains two opposites. On the one hand, it reveals the Shekhina and allows for God's presence in the world; on the other hand, it restricts that presence. This restriction expresses itself on various levels.

 

First, on the level of the distinction between miracle and nature; between particularism and all-embrasiveness; between "the faith of testimony" and recognition of its truth.

 

Second, on the level of God's presence in the world, in the distinction between place, time and person, and full holiness having the aspect of "there is no place void of Him"; between "and in His palace, everything says, 'Glory,'" and "the entire world is filled with His glory."

 

Third, on the level of religious service, in the distinction between material service, by way of the mitzvot, by way of actions, by way of the sacrifices, and service that is entirely spiritual, having the aspect of communion and placing "We shall do" before "We shall hear."

 

The common denominator is that the more we intensify our dedication in the sense of "We shall do and we shall hear" for the sake of God, so will we merit to repair the consequences of the sin of the golden calf - there being no generation that does not suffer punishment on account of it - and rise to the level of Mount Sinai. May the shining faith that grows out of this level reveal His kingdom over us speedily, in the sense of "the entire world is filled with His glory."

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] It should be noted that it is not necessary to connect the disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban regarding the chronological order of the events to the question whether or not the Mishkan reflects the ideal situation.

 

[2] As was stated, this understanding does not require us to assume that the commandment regarding the Mishkan was given after the sin of the golden calf, for the Ramban maintains that the commandment regarding the Mishkan preceded the sin, but nevertheless he sees the resting of the Shekhina in the Mishkan as an expression of God's reconciliation with Israel.

 

[3] The Rabbi of Apta, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, wishes to accept the Midrash, but still assume that the Mishkan reflects the ideal situation, as argued by the Ramban. He writes as follows: "'Six day you shall perform work, etc.' In this section, the holy Torah sets the warning regarding Shabbat before the work of the Mishkan. But in parashat Tisa it sets the work of the Mishkan before the keeping of Shabbat. It may be suggested according to the plain sense that in fact the Sages of blessed memory said that the Mishkan came to atone for the sin of the golden calf. As is evident from all the verses stated with respect to the work of the Mishkan, to repair with the very words with which they sinned, as it is stated in the Midrash… But it seems in fact that even had Israel not sinned with the golden calf, they would also have made the Mishkan, as God, blessed be he, said to Moshe, 'And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them' (Shemot 25:8). For the Mishkan was built as a model of the sanctuary above, heikhal corresponding to heikhal, etc. The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that we construct a Mishkan below in order to draw the Shekhina among the seed of Israel, His chosen people. But after they made the [golden] calf, God, blessed be He, commanded that they contribute to the Mishkan, and that they have in mind to atone thereby for the sin of the [golden] calf. Then there was added another reason and intention for building the Mishkan, that is, for the atonement. This was in addition to the first reason which was to draw the Shekhina. Now the keeping of Shabbat is also a repair of the sin of the [golden] calf. As our Sages of blessed memory said: 'Whoever keeps the Shabbat, etc. even if he worships idols, is pardoned.'" (Ohev Yisrael, Vayakhel). The command regarding the Mishkan comes as a continuation of the resting of God's Shekhina, as argued by the Ramban, but after Israel sinned, another meaning was added – repair of the sin of the golden calf.

 

[4] We dealt with this in our lecture about Chanuka in parashat Miketz.

 

[5] It should be noted that despite R. Tzadok's approach, he does not find it necessary to adopt Rashi's chronological order. Even if we say that the commandment regarding the Mishkan preceded the sin of the golden calf, following the Ramban, it is still possible to argue that the Divine command came through the knowledge that Israel would in the future commit the sin of the golden calf. Thus, R. Tzadok touches upon the difficult and complicated issue regarding Divine decree and human choice, and the tension between the two. Such a statement appears to undermine the idea of free choice. It fits in well with R. Tzadok's unique position on the issue, which wishes to provide full autonomy to both concepts, retaining the paradox to which this gives rise. This is all the more difficult when we are dealing with sin. We find an expression of the difficulty in R. Tzadok's position in the words of the Shem mi-Shemuel, the Admor of Sochotchov (Teruma, 5672). R. Shemuel is not prepared to hold on to both ends of the rope. If we say that the Mishkan was after the fact, we must say that the command to construct the Mishkan was issued in the aftermath of the sin, for were this not so, Israel would have been denied free choice. He adduces support for this from the Arizal's understanding of the statement, "For on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die," said to the first man, as a decree that removed from him the ability to choose whether or not to sin.

 

[6] We dealt with this tension between Mishkan in the sense of place and Mishkan in the sense of person in the previous lecture on parashot Teruma-Tetzave.

 

[7] It is interesting to note that it was precisely the destruction of the Temple that reduced in a certain measure the "material service," and placed new emphasis on spiritual service. Yom Kippur in a synagogue hardly touches the physical plain, which was not the case with Yom Kippur in the Temple.

This is connected to a long and profound argument put forward by the Sefat Emet and others, who saw the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of prophecy as having enabled the opening of a new channel for man's encounter with God (the Oral Law, God's presence in all places). It was precisely the absence of the Shekhina's revelation in the Mishkan and in the Mikdash that provided the opportunity to expose and reveal it.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)