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The Mishkan

Alumni and Students

by Rav Asher Altshul (Hesder 26)


            This week's Torah portion, parashat Teruma, begins with God's commandment to the Jewish people to build a Mishkan (Tabernacle).  God says to Moses, "...Ve-asu li Mikdash ve-shachanti be-tokham" - "build for me a 'Mikdash,' and I will dwell amongst them."  The Mishkan was the temporary sanctuary built by the Jewish people in the desert.   It remained the center of worship until a semi-permanent structure was built in Shilo.  (The terminology Mikdash and Mishkan will be explained later; until then they will be presumed to be synonymous).   


When was the command to build the Mishkan given?


            In last week's portion, the Ten Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai.  At the end of the portion, Moses returns to the mount in order to receive the Stone Tablets, the "Torah and the Mitzva" (See 24:12).  Immediately following the description of Moses's ascent, the Torah describes God's commandment to Moses to build the Mishkan.  The portions Teruma and Tetzaveh include the detailed descriptions of the Mishkan and all of its vessels.  Parashat Tetzaveh concludes with the anointing of the Priests.  When this is completed, the Torah relates the story of the golden calf.  Following the golden calf narrative, the Torah repeats the commandment to build the Mishkan.  The Torah repeats all the details of the structure and of the vessels.


            The question, therefore, arises: if the Jewish people were commanded to build the Mishkan prior to the sin of the golden calf, why is it necessary to once again repeat all of the details? 


            Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) explains that the commandment to build the Mishkan was in fact only relayed to Moses following the sin of the golden calf.  If so, why does the Mishkan appear in our portion, prior to the sin of the Golden Calf?


            Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) explains that the commandment to build the Mishkan was, in fact, given to Moses in our portion, during the first forty day period on Mt. Sinai.  When the children of Israel formed the golden calf, Moses was sent back down the mountain.  Upon returning to the camp, he destroyed the stone tablets and punished the perpetuators of the golden calf.  He then related to the people the laws of the Mishkan.  The next forty days were spent praying on behalf of the Children of Israel.  When God finally agreed to forgive them, Moses returned to the mountain in order to receive the second set of stone tablets.  The Torah then repeats the commandment to build the Mishkan.  This repetition signifies the new covenant  with God and the return to the original plan. 


            Ramban's explanation reflects his guiding principle in interpretation of the Torah.  Ramban attempts to explain the Torah's narrative as occurring in chronological order, and he rejects the principle "ein mukdam u-me'uchar ba-Torah" - "there is no chronological sequence in the Torah' - which other medieval exegetes use to assert that the narratives in the Torah are not necessarily in chronological order.  This principle is also found in Ramban's commentary earlier in the book of Shemot (chapter 16).  While Yitro's arrival to the camp of the Jewish people appears to occur prior to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, there are numerous difficulties in placing this event before the receiving of the Torah.  Ramban, nevertheless, steadfastly adheres to his principle and explains that the events do appear in their chronological order.


            Similarly here, Ramban's explanation seems to reflect the peshat, the basic understanding, of the text.  Rashi's explanation, on the other hand, is not only more difficult, but it also represents an entirely different approach to the aforementioned problem.  His explanation is based on a Midrash Tanchuma:


"Build me a Mikdash, and I will dwell amongst them" -            When was this chapter concerning the Mishkan stated? On the Day of Atonement itself, though it was placed before the story of the Golden Calf.  Said  R. Judah ben R. Shalom: There is no chronological sequence in the Torah             as it is stated (Proverbs 5:6) : "Her ways wander but she knows not." The way of the Torah and its chapters are displaced.  It was on the Day of Atonement that Moses was commanded "build me a Mikdash."  How do we know this? Moses went up to Mt. Sinai on the sixth of Sivan, staying there for forty days and forty nights.  And then, for another forty days, and then another, which makes one hundred and twenty.  You will find that on the Day of Atonement their sin was forgiven, and on the same day the Holy One Blessed be He said to them: "Build me a Mikdash, and I will dwell among them."  In order that all the nations should know that the sin of the golden calf had been expiated by them.  It is therefore called the Mishkan Eidut (testimony), a testimony to all the inhabitants of the world that the Holy One Blessed be He dwells in your sanctuary.  Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of which the calf was made..."


            Moses ascended Mt. Sinai on the Sixth of Sivan (Shavuot).  He informed the people that he would be gone for forty days.  On the final day, the Satan caused the sky to go dark.  The people became skeptical regarding Moses's return.  They might have assumed that Moses was consumed by the fire ablaze at the summit of Mt. Sinai.  They were in need of a replacement for Moses, and maybe even for God, so they decide to make a golden calf.  God became infuriated, and immediately sent Moses down the mountain.  Moses then returned to the mountain for forty days, during which he prayed for the people.  God agreed not to destroy the Children of Israel.  Moses then returned to the people and informed them of God's forgiveness.  He then returned to the mountain a third time in order to complete his prayers for atonement and to receive the second set of stone tablets.  He returned to the camp forty days later, with the tablets.  The following day came the commandment to build the Mishkan.  The Mishkan would not have been necessary had the Children of Israel not sinned; it was a response to their sin.  The people's behavior also proved that they were not fitting for the level of relationship with God that he had originally intended. 


            This theory is apparent in the commentary of Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) to Shemot 31:18: 


ý"...the original intention of God at the deliverance of the Torah was not fulfilled as he has said 'and you will be to me a nation of priests and a holy people' (19:6) and as he said: 'an altar of earth you shall make for me... anywhere I will come to you.'  Now it is necessary to build a Mishkan [and the Torah] is informing us that this is a direct cause of the erred choice of the Children of Israel, for although at the end of the first forty days He gave the Tablets in order to sanctify the entire nation as priests... now they have rebelled... and have fallen from their (spiritual) level, as the Torah testifies: and the Children of Israel lost the crowns which they had from the Mountain of Horeb (Sinai)."


            God originally intended that the entire nation serve as priests.  He also intended that worship would be permissible in any location, as opposed to one geographical and spiritual center.  The Mishkan's appearance in the Torah prior to the people's sin demonstrates God's merciful ways, as it prepares the cure before the ailment exists. 


            Ramban, on the other hand, is not willing to accept this theory that the Mishkan is merely a later development resulting from the people's actions.  How could such an integral concept be only a response to a sin? In his Commentary to Shemot 25, he describes at length the importance of the Mishkan.  He writes: "...that they should have a Mikdash so that My Presence shall rest with them.  And the secret of the Mishkan..., that the Mishkan shall be always with the Children of Israel, eternalizing the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai."


            The idea that the Mishkan is a central component of God's original plan is also apparent in a number of Midrashim.  In Tanchuma Yashan 25:19 we read:


"... and the Holy One Blessed be He said: 'You (the Children of Israel) have left Egypt for no purpose other than building me a Mishkan so that My Presence shall dwell amongst you...'"


Seder Olam Rabah Chapter 6:


"...He (God) said to them: 'How fortunate are you Israel that you have been honored with the [work of] the Mishkan, and as you have been honored with such so will you be honored with the Chosen House (Beit Hamikdash)...'"


            According to these citations, God intended the Mishkan to be His dwelling place in the physical world, and through the Mishkan, the ultimate  revelation of God on Mt. Sinai will eternally be remembered.


[It is possible that Rashi also agrees with this symbolic importance of the Mishkan, but only after the sin of the golden calf which caused God's presence to no longer dwell among the nation equally.]


            To summarize the above explanations: Ramban explains that the commandment to build the Mishkan was given before the sin of the golden calf.  His view is based upon both his consistent method of interpreting chronological problems in the Torah's narrative, as well as his fundamental understanding of the Mishkan's purpose.  Rashi's view is based on the principle which maintains that there need not be chronological order to the Torah's narrative, and on the view of the Midrash which asserts that the commandment to build the Mishkan came in response to the sin of the golden calf.


            Let us focus on Rashi's explanation.  According to Rashi, before the golden calf, there was no Divine intention to have a Mishkan.  This position is problematic not only from a conceptual point of view, but from a textual perspective as well.  At the end of Mishpatim it states (23:19): "The first fruits of your land bring before the house of the Lord your God."  This verse, stated prior to the sin of the golden calf, mentions a "house" of God. In addition, prior to sin of the golden calf we find the Ohel Mo'ed, the Tent of Convention, where Moses spoke to God.  After Moses destroys the golden calf and punishes the perpetrators, God commands Moses to remove the tent from within the camp.  The tent, which served as the location of God and Moses's meetings, will now rest  outside the camp.  At this time it was given the name 'Ohel Mo'ed' - the Tent of Convention.  This symbolizes the departure of God's presence from the camp while the people atoned for their sin.  Before the sin, God's presence dwelt among the entire nation, and the tent served as the place God spoke to Moses.  After the sin, the tent still serves as the central location of God's presence.


            How is it possible to explain that the Mishkan was not part of the 'original plan?'


            To understand this position, we must return to our parasha, Teruma.  The verse in which God commands the people to build the Mishkan does not employ the term Mishkan, but rather the word Mikdash.  Nowhere again does the Torah refer to the Mishkan as Mikdash in our portion.  It is possible that the commandment to build a Mikdash is a remnant of the original plan. 


            God had originally intended that a house, a mikdash, be built.  A Mishkan in the desert, on the other hand, would not have been necessary.  Had they not sinned, the entire nation would serve as priests.  They would have been able to worship God wherever and however they wished.  There would be no need for a central and restricted method of worship.  The House of God would have served primarily as the place of communication with God.  It would have been a cultural and national center, rather than a center of worship.  There would have been worship at the House of God, but to a much lesser degree than we find later after the sin of the golden calf.  (Worship refers primarily to the bringing of sacrifices.)


            The behavior of the nation at the sin of the golden calf caused God to change his plan.  The nation demonstrated that they were unworthy of having the presence of God rest among them.  If God were to rest among all the nation, the spiritual purity required would have been too demanding.  God therefore said to Moses, in Shemot 33:5, that if He were to dwell amongst the nation but one moment, they would be annihilated.  Thus God restricted his presence to the Mishkan alone.  In the Mishkan, the demanding nature of spiritual purity remained.  Later in the Torah, when the sons of Aaron bring an incense offering into the Mishkan, they are burned by a heavenly fire.  The reason for such a harsh response is not explicitly written, but based on the above theory, we can understand that even the slightest deviation from the Divinely proscribed method of worship would warrant such repercussions.


            The nation demonstrated that they were not able to choose their own method of worship.  A central house of worship will now serve the whole nation.  Every man will not be able to worship God directly.  The sons of Aaron would tend to the House of God, acting as the emissaries of the nation They would also act as God's emissary to the nation.  A strict detailed system of worship replaced worship originating from the individual.


            One question remains: Why does the description of the Mishkan appear before the sin of the golden calf? The Midrash states that the Torah is displaying an attribute of mercy.  It is "makdim terufa le-maka" - creating the remedy before the ailment.  It seems that there is a deeper level to this Midrashic statement.  Man has the freedom to choose his course of action.  However, the Divine response to man's actions is predetermined.  The nation could have chosen not to make a golden calf, but after they did so, the Divine response was already prepared.


            The Torah was written for the people in the desert.  It was also written for all future generations.  The Torah wishes to convey two messages.  God ultimately wants man to worship him on an individual, personal level, and wished for an entire nation of priests, so that his presence would rest equally throughout the land.  The Torah, however, describes the eventual outcome.  The Torah places an emphasis on the practical applications, therefore it places the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf.  However it cannot neglect telling the true story; therefore, after the description of the Mishkan, the story appears in its proper order.


            This explanation is not entirely compatible with Rashi's.  According to Rashi, no Mishkan would have been needed at all.  It is unclear, therefore, what would have happened had the people not sinned.  It is also not completely in line with Sforno's explanation.  Sforno does not differentiate between sacrificial worship and communication with God.  It is also unclear exactly what would have existed in place of the Mikdash.  It is possible that he envisioned that a Mikdash would have been built (see his commentary on Shemot 23:19), but it is unclear how it would operate.  Would everyone be priestly? Would there be an altar and sacrifices?  The explanation provided here is an attempt to fill in the gaps left open by these commentaries.



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