We read in Parashat Teruma of God’s commands to Benei Yisrael regarding the construction of the Mishkan, the edifice in which He would “reside” as they traveled through the wilderness. There is a well-known debate among the commentators as to whether this command was given before the sin of the golden calf, or after – and in response to – this incident. Rashi (commenting to Parashat Ki-Tisa, 31:18), based on the Midrash Tanchuma (31), asserts that although the command to build the Mishkan appears before the story of the golden calf, in truth, the command was given after Benei Yisrael worshipped the calf. The Ramban, in his famous introduction to Parashat Teruma, explains differently, and maintains that the command to build the Mishkan directly followed the event of Matan Torah, as indicated by the text. This is also the position taken by the Zohar.
Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in his Sheim Mi-Shmuel, discusses these different opinions, and suggests an explanation for the essential point of debate around which this disagreement revolves. He elaborates at length on the special sanctity and supernatural quality of the Mishkan, noting in particular the famous tradition that the aron (ark) did not actually need to be carried through the wilderness, as it transported itself. The Sheim Mi-Shmuel asserts that this was true also of the rest of the Mishkan, as a structure of this size, even after it was dismantled, would naturally be unable to be hauled via six wagons through the sandy desert. Benei Yisrael earned this unique sanctity and supernatural manifestation of God’s presence, the Sheim Mi-Shmuel writes, through their remarkable generosity in donating their wealth for the Mishkan’s construction. As we read later, in Parashat Vayakhel (35:21-29, 37:3-7), the people responded immediately and generously to Moshe’s call to donate materials for this project. So much so, that in just two days, they had already contributed more than what was needed for the Mishkan. This generosity, the Sheim Mi-Shmuel writes, stemmed from Benei Yisrael’s overpowering love for God and fierce desire to connect with Him.
If so, he explains, then the question lying at the heart of the debate among the commentators is from where these feelings originated. According to the view that the command to build the Mishkan immediately followed Matan Torah, the source of the people’s intense spiritual drive was the Revelation at Sinai, the manifestation of God which they beheld. This event inspired them and generated within them the emotions that were expressed through their generous donations of materials to the Mishkan. According to the other view, however, this inspiration came from the process of repentance that followed the grave sin of the golden calf. This process, even more so than the Revelation, aroused the people’s great love for God and their desire to have Him reside among them.
The Sheim Mi-Shmuel’s analysis reflects the notion that inspiration and growth can stem from two opposite sources – from a lofty spiritual experience, or from abject failure. And, at least according to one opinion, the process of recovering from failure is even more valuable a source of inspiration than an experience such as Matan Torah. The Sheim Mi-Shmuel here teaches us that every situation, even our worst moments of shame and disappointment, can inspire a process of growth and propel us to great heights. The process of acknowledging guilt, feeling remorse and committing to improve can inspire us to be far better and stronger than we were before we failed. Just as we can grow from “Matan Torah,” from impactful spiritual experiences, so can we draw inspiration from “the golden calf,” from our mistakes and failures, if we work to recover from them, learn from them, and resolve to never repeat them.