The Midrash Tanchuma, commenting to the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa, follows the view it takes throughout the latter part of Sefer Shemot, that the command to construct the Mishkan was issued in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Although the command of the Mishkan appears in the text prior to the story of the golden calf, the Midrash Tanchuma asserts that the Mishkan, and everything associated with it, served as a means of atonement for that grievous sin. The Tanchuma here in Parashat Ki-Tisa applies this view to the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel- the half-shekel tax that was used as a means of counting of the people, and for providing silver with which the foundation of the Mishkan was made. This donation, which the Torah explicitly describes as a means of atonement (“kofer nafsho”), served to atone for the sin of the calf.
In this context, the Tanchuma comments, “Come see how beloved Yisrael are, that their transgressions bring [them] to great heights.” The sin of the golden calf, the Midrash writes, resulted in the command to pay a half-shekel for their atonement. And thus, paradoxically, this grave sin led to the great privilege of the Mishkan. The Midrash points to another grave offense – the sale of Yosef as a slave – as another example of this phenomenon: “The single sitting at which the tribes [Yosef’s brothers] sat and unanimously decided to sell Yosef sustained the world for seven years.” This unspeakable crime against Yosef had the effect of enabling Yosef to store grain in Egypt ahead of the seven-year drought which later ravaged the region, and thus their grave sin ended up saving untold numbers of lives. The Midrash concludes, “If the great sin that they committed led to a mitzva and merit, then the mitzvot which they perform – all the more so.”
The Midrash here teaches us not to lose hope or fall into discouragement and despair after making mistakes, even grave mistakes. It notes “chibatan shel Yisrael” – the great love and affection that the Almighty has for us, allowing us the opportunity to retroactively transform our wrongdoing and failures into sources of elevation. When a child misbehaves or makes a mistake, the parent’s greatest wish is for the child to learn from the experience and improve. This is also the Almighty’s wish, as it were, when we err and fail – that we grow from the experience and use the mistake to improve ourselves. The Tanchuma views the command of the Mishkan in response to the golden calf as a symbol of the way we can use even our greatest failures as sources of growth and elevation. Just as the golden calf paved the way for God’s residence among Benei Yisrael in the Mishkan, similarly, we should approach our failings as opportunities for growth and advancement, and set our sights upon a future of greater achievement and greater efforts to inch forward along the road to perfection.