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The Mishkan Narratives - and their Chronology

Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Mishkan Narratives and their Chronology

By Rav Michael Hattin


With the revelation at Sinai of Parashat Yitro behind us and the proclamation of the fundamental laws of Parashat Mishpatim complete, the Torah now embarks upon what constitutes Sefer Shemot's longest narrative section: the description of the Mishkan or Tabernacle. In painstaking detail stretching over fifteen chapters, the vessels of the Mishkan, the elements of the building proper containing them, and the precious priestly garments of those that minister within the holy precincts are all spelled out. And in an emphatic statement about the importance of the topic, the Torah actually relates the entire lengthy subject twice: in Parashat Teruma (25:1-27:19) and Tetzave (27:20-30:10), the Divinely-communicated blueprints for the building, its courtyard and its components are presented, while in Parashat Vayakhel (35:1-38:20) and Pekudei (38:21-40:38), the execution of the work by the team of artisans representing the people is described. It is of course significant that there are no significant discrepancies between the two sections, indicating that the people of Israel followed God's instructions exactly.


It should be noted, however, that there is an intervening parasha that breaks up and bifurcates an otherwise tightly constructed narrative into two sections of almost equal length – prolonged Ki Tisa that stretches over five chapters (30:11-34:35). Parashat Ki Tisa begins with such Tabernacle-related items as the annual poll tax of one-half shekel of silver, the description of the bronze laver and its stand, and the instructions for the production of the anointing oil and the incense. But then, abruptly, it turns its attention to its main and more ominous topic: the fashioning of the golden calf, its worship by the people, and the destructive aftermath of its deification. As that parasha relates, Moshe's delay in descending from the mount is followed by panic, and Aharon's agitated attempts to temporarily restore order with the fashioning of a golden image quickly degrade into idolatry. When Moshe does return, he angrily smashes the tablets of the Decalogue at the feet of the mountain and proceeds to punish the perpetrators. In the end, the people are saved from Divine wrath only on account of Moshe's heartfelt prayers, but the lawgiver must return to God to receive a second copy of the tablets. Parashat Ki Tisa appropriately concludes with a series of laws that echo the end of Parashat Mishpatim, by conditioning the entry and settlement of Canaan on the successful extirpation of its corrosive expressions of idolatry.

In effect then, what the Torah does over the course of these five parashiyot – Teruma, Tetzave, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel and Pekudei – is to create a bookend or bracketing effect. The narratives of the Mishkan, God's directives and their fulfillment, neatly frame the episode of the golden calf, offering the reader a remarkable caution to the account of the noble endeavor of attempting to provide a spatial location for the experience of the Deity.


Not surprisingly, the commentaries are in sharp disagreement concerning the chronology of these sections. Rashi (11th century, France), basing himself on the earlier Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Ki Tisa 31), maintains that the Divine command to Moshe inviting the people of Israel to contribute towards the building of the Mishkan, as well as the detailed directives that follow concerning the vessels, their enclosure and the priestly garments, were all communicated to Moshe in the AFTERMATH of the episode of the golden calf. Although our parashiyot are arranged with the COMMANDS concerning the construction of the Mishkan textually placed before the episode of the golden calf, while the description of the work's EXECUTION is placed after that debacle, in reality ALL of the sections belong afterwards. As Rashi puts it in Parashat Ki Tisa (31:18)

There are neither earlier nor later passages in the Torah. The episode of the golden calf preceded the command concerning the Mishkan by many days. After all, the tablets were smashed on the 17th day of Tammuz, and God was reconciled to the people on Yom Kippur (the 10th of Tishrei). On the morrow, the people began the collection for the Mishkan, and it was erected on the 1st of Nissan...

As the Midrash Tanchuma elaborates "the people of Israel spent Yom Kippur in prayer and fasting and on that very day God informed Moshe that He had forgiven the people. God therefore designated that day as a day of forgiveness and atonement for all generations...AND IMMEDIATELY THEREAFTER HE COMMANDED MOSHE AND SAID 'THEY SHALL MAKE FOR ME A PLACE OF HOLINESS AND I SHALL DWELL IN THEIR MIDST' (25:8)"

For Rashi then, our Parasha of Teruma was actually not communicated to Moshe until much later, until the golden calf had been crafted, worshipped and destroyed, and the people had been forgiven by God. In effect, the conclusion of Parashat Mishpatim that described Moshe's ascent to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Decalogue (24:12-18) is the very same ascent that is described in Parashat Ki Tisa as the temporal precursor to the fashioning of the golden calf (31:18). When Parashat Mishpatim concludes by observing that Moshe ascended to Mount Sinai and entered the cloud that crowned its summit, remaining there for "forty days and forty nights" (24:18), it is describing the very same forty days whose conclusion sans Moshe's anticipated descent sparked the drive by the anxious Israelites to construct the golden calf (32:1). It was only afterwards, according to Rashi, after Moshe had destroyed the glittering fetish and ascended the mount once again in order to argue for the people's preservation and secure Divine forgiveness, only after he had remained there for a period of eighty days culminating in the acceptance of his prayers on Yom Kippur, that God signaled His rapprochement with the people of Israel by introducing to Moshe the command concerning the Mishkan.


Rashi himself does not indicate why he believes the parashiyot are recorded out of order. He does not tell us why the Torah introduces Parashat Teruma and its buoyant blueprints before they were actually communicated to Moshe. He does not inform us why the narrative of the golden calf is textually consigned to the chapters after Parashat Tetzave when in fact it occurred so much earlier. Is the Torah perhaps attempting to temper the promise and potential of the Mishkan by textually linking it with its analog of villainy, in order to underline the great danger inherent in the ambitious undertaking of providing a spatial abode for a transcendent Being? The many similarities between the two seemingly antithetical episodes would tend to reinforce this reading.

Note for instance that the construction of the Mishkan begins with Moshe's collection drive of precious materials, chief among them gold (25:1-2), much as the fashioning of the golden calf is initiated by Aharon's request for the people to "take off the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me" (32:2). Note that Aharon fashions the molten bovine with a stylus (32:4), mirroring the holy work of the artisans who create the vessels of the Mishkan with the tools of their respective crafts. Note that the fashioning of the calf is succeeded by a report of the idolatrous festival that the people celebrate on the morrow, including sacrifices of burnt offerings and peace offerings (32:6), much as the Mishkan is dedicated upon its completion by an elaborate cultic ceremony centering upon sacrifice (29:1-37). And most tellingly, note how the people excitedly proclaim that the calf is "your god, Israel, which has brought you up from the land of Egypt!" (32:4), just as God had introduced the Mishkan undertaking with His statement that He desired to "dwell among them (Israel)" (25:8).

In effect, by dividing up the Mishkan narratives with the pointed insertion of the story of the golden calf, the Torah is highlighting the inherent dangers of constructing a physical abode for the experience of God's glory. How easily can a holy location in space, a "house" for the dwelling of the Deity, be confused with the Deity Himself, insidiously altering the Absolute and the Transcendent into the coarse and the corporeal. How easily can the gold of our contributions, sincerely surrendered and lovingly fashioned, be transformed into a molten image, so that God's glory is shockingly transmogrified into "the form of an ox that consumes grass"! (Tehillim 106:20).


While Rashi prefers to maintain silence concerning the significance of the chronological upheaval, allowing our explanation to mitigate its effects, for at least one other commentary the difficulty is more acute. Rav Ovadia Seforno (16th century, Italy) agrees with Rashi that the episode of the golden calf preceded the commands to erect a Mishkan by some time. But in fact, the Seforno goes much further, for he maintains that it was only because of the sin of the golden calf that God commanded the Mishkan to be built at all! As he relates in his comments to the laws of kashrut spelled out in Parashat Shemini (Sefer Vayikra 11:2):

After the people of Israel had surrendered their spiritual aura that they had acquired at the time of the giving of the Torah (see Shemot 33:4-5), by which they had been made worthy to be inspired with God's presence without any intermediary, as the verse states "every place that I will mention My name, I will come to you and bless you" (Shemot 20:24), and just as it will be in the future, as the verse states "I will place My dwelling in your midst and My soul will not be repelled by you" (Vayikra 26:11), the Lord blessed be He rejected the notion of causing His presence to be among them at all, as the verse states "I shall not ascend in your midst..." (Shemot 33:3). Moshe, through his prayers, effected a measure of repair, namely that the Divine Presence should dwell in their midst by the vehicle of the Mishkan and its vessels, its ministering priests and its sacrifices, until the people merited to experience "the glory of God appearing to all of the people" (Vayikra 9:23) and to the descent of the heavenly fire (Vayikra 9:24)...(commentary to Vayikra 11:2).


In other words, for the Seforno, the command to build a Mishkan at all was in reality only a REACTION to the sin of the golden calf. By lacking trust in Moshe's assurances that he would return from the mountain, and by insisting on the creation of a molten image in his or God's stead, the people of Israel demonstrated that they were not yet able to surrender their idolatrous conception of the cosmos, in which God (or the gods) had physical form, concrete qualities, and material needs. Although God had indicated to them at the time of the revelation of His glory at Sinai that they could merit the experience of His presence without recourse to any physical vehicle whatsoever, that they could potentially live their lives in constant sensitivity to His glory even in the absence of a concrete and tangible focal point, the people indicated that they were not yet up to the challenge. How could they possibly surrender their previous conceptions, no doubt conditioned by centuries of life along the banks of the Nile, of limited deities that had bodies, golden temples that functioned as their abodes, and modes of worship that aimed to satisfy their crude and loutish needs? In short, how could the people let go of their theological conceptions that tended to view Absolute God through the prism of their own limited human reality?

Therefore, Seforno indicates, God commanded the people of Israel to fashion the Tabernacle as a concession to their inability to transcend polytheistic notions! Thus, they might yet merit to experience His glory through the medium of a physical location in space, a gilded temple afforded with all of the familiar trappings, and a sacrificial service whose externals were not foreign or utterly strange. By commanding the people to construct the Mishkan, God unleashed the process of their ultimate maturation, drawing them away from gross idolatry, pointing them in the direction of higher recognition, and paving the way for a brighter future in which God's presence would once again be experienced unbounded by the physical constraints imposed by location and ritual.

Seforno's bold interpretation assumes that the singularly positive tone of the Mishkan narratives is not to be misconstrued as the Divine imprimatur that such a building and its vessels is intrinsically valuable, but rather as a forceful statement that God appreciates our struggles and desires our advancement. His ear is sensitive to our limitations and He is willing to compromise with His ideals, so to speak, in order that we may grow and develop. For the Seforno, then, we must understand that the Torah rearranges the order of the narratives in order to impress upon us that we may have not yet transcended our more elementary and superficial notions of what it is to truly serve the Deity, as if God's glory could be contained by a physical place and apprehended through concrete things. But God, in His compassion, nevertheless embraces our attempts, guides our efforts and desires our success. Though we may sometimes feel that we can only experience His presence in certain locations and at specific times, that too is progress, and in God's eyes is valuable and worthwhile. And one day, Seforno maintains, we will come to the startling realization that the ideal worship and service of God must take place in the heart and in the mind, not at certain times of worship and in accordance with prescribed rituals, but at all times and in all activities: "Every place that I will mention My name, I will come to you and bless you" (Shemot 20:24).

Shabbat Shalom

For further study: it should be pointed out that Seforno's formulation, viewing the Mishkan as more of a concession than an ideal, is not universally adopted. Most commentaries avoid his extreme assertion, and his explanation would of course be untenable according to those commentaries (such as the Ramban, 13th century, Spain) who maintain that the narratives of the Torah are in fact related in chronological order. For them, the command to build the Mishkan is related to Moshe BEFORE the episode of the golden calf and not after it, and cannot therefore be viewed as a reaction to that event.

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