"Where is the House that you would build for Me?" (Isaia 66:1)
After the awesome revelation at Mount Sinai, the ten commandments (Exodus chapter 20), and the recounting of the varied laws following the revelation, the Torah narrative changes dramatically both in content and style. For most of the remaining chapters of the book of Exodus (chapters 25 ff.) and the first ten chapters of the book of Leviticus, the Torah focuses on one specific theme, the Mishkan (the Tabernacle - God's sanctuary). The only exceptions are Exodus, chapters 32-34, which deal with Moses' receiving the stone tablets and the sin of the golden calf. Besides these chapters, the Torah focuses almost exclusively on the Mishkan and its related laws.
In this week's portion, Parashat Teruma, which opens this extended section dealing with the Mishkan, God commands the people of Israel, "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (25:8). When was this commandment to build the Mishkan given? This is an issue of sharp contention amongst the commentators. As we shall see, this is not simply a question of chronology; it may bear repercussions on our understanding of the whole enterprise of building the Mishkan.
I. Rashi's Approach
According to the order of the Biblical narrative, God commanded to build the sanctuary shortly following the revelation at Sinai. However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) is of the opinion that the commandment was given much later, only after the sin of the golden calf and the giving of the second tablets:
"There is no chronological order in Scripture. The incident of the golden calf preceded the commandment of the construction of the Mishkan by many days" (Rashi 31:18).
According to Rashi, even though the narrative of the golden calf (chapter 32) is recounted after the commandment to build the Mishkan (chapter 25 ff) it nevertheless preceded it chronologically. The source for this interpretation is the Midrash Tanchuma (a compilation of homiletic interpretations of our sages on the Torah):
"'And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them' - When was this portion concerning the Mishkan stated? On the Day of Atonement, though it was placed [in the Torah] before the story of the golden calf. Rabbi Juda son of Rabbi Shalom said: There is no chronological sequence in the Torah. It was on the Day of Atonement that Moses was commanded 'Let them make me a sanctuary.' ... You will find that on the Day of Atonement their sin [of worshipping the golden calf] was forgiven, and on the same day the Holy One Blessed be He said to them: 'And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them' in order that all the nations should know that the sin of the golden calf had been atoned for. It is therefore called the 'Mishkan Eidut' (tabernacle of testimony, see Numbers 1:53), a testimony to all the inhabitants of the world that the Holy One Blessed be He dwells in our 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 ..." (Midrash Tanchuma, Exodus 25:8).
According to the Tanchuma, the construction of the Mishkan is an act of atonement by the people for the sin of the golden calf. The people sinned with gold by building a golden calf and atone with gold by constructing the Mishkan which included many gold instruments. The Mishkan is a testimony to the fact that God forgave the people for their sin and dwells among them.
II. A Non-Chronological Torah
Both Rabbi Juda son of Rabbi Shalom in the Tanchuma and Rashi, who adopts his approach, preface their interpretations by stating the exegetical principal underlying their interpretations. They are of the opinion that "ein mukdam u-me'uchar ba-Torah" - the Torah is not written chronologically (Literally, there is no 'earlier' and 'later' in Scripture). The fact that the commandment to build the Mishkan appears in Exodus 25:8, well before the narrative of the golden calf (chapter 32), in no way dictates that this was the order of events. Thematic considerations may prompt the Torah to relate sections and narratives not according to chronology but rather according to topic. In our specific instance, the Torah preferred to relate the commandment to build the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf even though, according to Rashi, it occurred later.
III. The Order to the Chaos
It is incumbent upon those espousing the approach that the Torah is not written chronologically to offer alternative explanations for the organization and order of the Biblical narrative. What prompted the Torah to convey the commandment regarding the Mishkan before the recounting of the sin of the golden calf?
Rabbeinu Bechayei (R. Bechayei ben Asher, Spain, end of 13th beginning of 14th century) offers the following explanation:
"This commandment to construct the Mishkan came after the day of atonement, and even though the sin [of the golden calf] came before the Mishkan ... the Torah whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17), nevertheless desired to have the Mishkan which was an atonement, precede the sin, for this is the way of God to have the cure precede the illness" (Exodus 25:6).
Another possible explanation for the change from the chronological order is that it comes to teach us that, even though the Mishkan is not the ideal situation, after God commanded to construct the Mishkan, we must relate to it as an ideal. For this reason the Torah conveys the commandment to build the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf. Even though it is a consequence of sin, after the commandment, we must relate to it detached from the sin of the golden calf.
IV. The Sforno's Surprise
As stated earlier, the question of when the commandment to construct the Mishkan was given MAY have repercussions on our understanding of the ultimate purpose of the Mishkan. We saw that Rashi posits that God commanded Moses to construct the Mishkan only after the sin of the golden calf. There are those who, based on this approach, conclude that the Mishkan was not originally intended by God! They are of the opinion that the commandment to construct the Mishkan not only follows the sin of the golden calf but is actually a consequence of it! It is only as a result of the sin of the golden calf that God decided to command the construction of the Mishkan. This is the surprising approach advanced by the Sforno (31:18):
"[The Torah] explains the reason why the goal which God, the Blessed One, ordained when the Torah was given, when He said, 'And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people' (19:6), [and also] when He said, 'An altar of earth make unto Me ... in every place ... I will come to you (20:21), was not realized. [Instead,] they were constrained to make a Sanctuary. We are told that this happened because of the evil choice made by Israel, for indeed after the first forty days the tablets which were the work of God were given to sanctify everyone to be priests and a holy nation according to the good words He had spoken. But they rebelled and corrupted their ways and fell from their exalted level."
According to the Sforno, the sin of the golden calf led to a dramatic change in the manner of worship of God. God originally commanded, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me ... IN ALL PLACES where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you" (20:21). God's original intention was that worship be permissible in any location. There was to be no central sanctuary. One could offer sacrifices on any altar of earth. In addition, God desired that the entire nation serve as priests: 'and you will be to me a NATION of priests and a holy people' (19:6). It was only after the sin of the golden calf that God commanded the construction of the Mishkan, thereby limiting sacrificial worship to one location, and designated the descendants of Aaron as priests responsible for the offering of sacrifices. The purpose of the Mishkan is to prevent the reoccurrence of an event like the sin of the golden calf. The laws of the Mishkan delineate the manner by which God is to be worshipped. The descendants of Aaron, who proved to be the most loyal to God in the sin of the golden calf (see 32:26 ff), were chosen to be responsible for the sacrificial cult. The worship of God is no longer left to the caprices of the people of Israel. An Israelite may no longer build his own altar and offer sacrifices himself. He must now go to the Mishkan and have the kohanim (priests) oversee the offering of the sacrifices. Thus, the Mishkan is geared primarily towards diminishing the dangers of the spread of idolatry.
One may accept the Sforno's claim that the Mishkan is not the ideal and was not the original intention of God, but explain this in a manner. The Mishkan may be viewed not as a tool for combating idolatry but rather as a concession to the weaknesses evinced by the people in the sin of the golden calf. The golden calf stemmed from the need of the people for a more tangible relationship with God. They could not worship God in a completely amorphous abstract manner. The Mishkan was meant to provide a more tangible form of worship. Were the Israelites on a higher spiritual level, they would not need such a contrivance.
To summarize, we saw that Rashi is of the opinion that the commandment to construct the Mishkan came after the sin of the golden calf. The Sforno, building on Rashi's interpretation, views the Mishkan as a quantitative limitation, a constriction of sacrifices to a specific location, as a safeguard against aberrations in worship. Alternatively, one may view the Mishkan as a qualitative transformation in worship. The Mishkan introduces a more tangible form of worship which was not originally intended but proved necessary for the Israelites' relationship with the divine.
V. The Ramban's Approach
Until now, we have analyzed the position that the commandment to build the Mishkan came after the sin of the golden calf. However, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) disagrees and asserts that the commandment came, as is implicit in the order of Scripture, before the sin of the golden calf. The Ramban has a fundamental disagreement with Rashi regarding the organization of Scripture. According to the Ramban, the Torah is, as a rule, chronological. Since the commandment to construct the Mishkan appears before the narrative of the golden calf, the Ramban concludes that it preceded the sin of the golden calf:
"Why should we invert the words of the living God ... By way of the proper interpretation of Scripture, Moses was commanded about the building of the Mishkan PRIOR to the incident of the golden calf." (Ramban Leviticus 8:1)
However, the Ramban does not only disagree with the interpretations cited earlier on the grounds of a different approach in relation to the question of whether or not the Torah is chronological. His whole understanding of the place and function of the Mishkan is fundamentally different from that of the Sforno. The Ramban opens his commentary to this week's portion with an exposition on the central importance of the Mishkan and its role within the greater context of the book of Exodus (25:1):
"Now that God had told Israel face to face the Ten Commandments, and had further commanded them through Moses some of the precepts which are like general principles to the [individual] commandments of the Torah, and now that the Israelites accepted upon themselves to do all that He would command them through Moses and He made a covenant with them concerning all this, from now on they are His people and He is their God. This is in accordance with the condition He made with them at the beginning: 'Now, therefore, if you will indeed listen to Me, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure' (Exodus 19:5), and He said further: 'and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation' (19:6). They are now holy, in that they are worthy that there be amongst them a Sanctuary through which He makes His Divine Glory dwell among them. Therefore He first commanded concerning the Tabernacle, so that He have amongst them a house dedicated to His name, from where He would speak with Moses and command the children of Israel. Thus the main purpose of the Tabernacle was to contain a place in which the Divine Glory rests.
The secret of the Tabernacle 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 Eternal abode upon Mount Sinai' (Exodus 24:16), and it is further written, 'Behold the Eternal our God has shown us His glory and His greatness' (Deuteronomy 5:21) so it is written of the Tabernacle, 'and the Glory of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle' (Exodus 40:34).
Thus Israel always had with them in the Tabernacle the Glory which appeared to them on Mount Sinai. And when Moses went into the Tabernacle, he would hear the Divine utterance being spoken to him in the same way as on Mount Sinai.
According to the Ramban, the Mishkan is not a consequence of the sin of the golden calf. It is not a safeguard against idolatry, nor a compromise due to spiritual limitations of the people. Rather, it is the ultimate intent of the covenant between Israel and God. Once the people agree to keep God's commandments and be His people, God agrees to dwell amongst them and be their God. The revelation at Sinai and the ten commandments are prerequisites and preparation for the eventual commandment to build a Mishkan so that God may dwell within Israel. The revelation at Sinai- God's descent on the Mount, persists in the Mishkan. The Mishkan symbolizes an ongoing presence and divine revelation to Israel. God revealed Himself to the people at Mount Sinai and continues to dwell amongst them within in the Mishkan. This is the ultimate expression of being the nation of God.
VI. The Meaning of the Mishkan
Whichever approach one adopts regarding the question of when God commanded to construct the Mishkan and what its purpose was, one is faced with an even more fundamental question regarding the whole notion of constructing an abode for God. The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) offers the following cogent formulation of this question:
"Why did God command us regarding the construction of the Mishkan saying 'I shall dwell among them' as if he were a defined corporeal being limited in space when the exact opposite is true? For He is not corporeal, nor a material force, so how did they ascribe to Him a place. Did not God say of Himself, 'The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that you would build for me? and where is the place of my rest?'" (Isaia 66:1).
Likewise, did not Salomon state regarding the construction of the Temple: "Behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?" (Kings I 8:27).
Disturbed by the whole notion of God dwelling within physical confines, the Abrabanel advances the following elucidation of the commandment to construct a Mishkan:
"The Almighty's intention behind the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels ... was to prevent the people from mistakenly concluding that God left the world and so that they would not be like the rest of the nations in their respective lands who deny that God oversees individuals and judges each person according to his actions. For their most wise claim that ... God's throne is in the heaven and he is distant from human beings. In order to dismiss such faulty conceptions from the hearts of the people of Israel, God commanded that they make him a holy sanctuary AS IF He Himself dwells therein so that they would believe that the Lord is with them and oversees them. This is the meaning of the verses: 'I will dwell among the children of Israel' (25:8), 'And I will walk among you' (Leviticus 26:12) ... It is all a METAPHOR, an allegory, representing the idea of the immanence of the divine presence."
According to the Abrabanel, the Mishkan is a metaphor. God does not really dwell in the Mishkan. Such an idea is phiabsurd! Rather, the Mishkan teaches us that God watches over us and judges the world and He is not, as claimed by the wise of the nations, a distant and detached God.
While the Abrabanel's interpretation helps solve the philosophical query regarding the habitation of the divine within physical confines, it does not sit well with the verses following the conclusion of the construction of the Mishkan:
"Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan." (Exodus 40:34,35)
These verses indicate that the presence of God actually filled the sanctuary and, as a consequence of this, Moses could not enter. An interesting homiletic interpretation of our Sages from the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (one of the oldest collections of homiletic interpretations of our Sages for festivals and special Shabbats) expresses a similar idea:
"Rabbi Juda son of Simon said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ... When [God] told [Moses] 'And let them make Me a sanctuary' (25:8), Moses responded to the Almighty, 'Lord of the universe, 'Behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You;' (Kings I 8:27) and You say 'And let them make Me a sanctuary?' Then God responded, 'Moses, it is not as you think, rather twenty [wooden] boards in the north and twenty in the south and eight in the west and I will descend and confine my presence between them as is written 'There I will meet with you' (Exodus 25:22) -(Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, chapter 2)
Moses was troubled by the very same question raised by the Abrabanel. How could God, the omnipresent and non-corporeal, possibly dwell in the Mishkan? The answer provided by our Sages is the mystical concept of "tzimtzum"- God's confining His presence. The Kabbalists (students of Jewish mysticism) use this concept to explain how it is possible for anything to exist if God encompasses the whole world. The Kabbala answers that God confined Himself in order to provide the world "space" in which to exist. Our Sages apply the same idea to God's dwelling in the Mishkan. God confines Himself within the boundaries of the Mishkan. This is obviously a very different approach from that advanced by the Abrabanel. Scripture and our Sages understand that the Mishkan is not just a symbol; God's presence truly resides there.
If Moses could not fully grasp this concept, it is unlikely that we will be able to comprehend it. The descent of the infinite and intangible into the finite and corporeal is an awesome mystery. Just as man seeks God and wishes to get closer to Him, so too God desires a dwelling place in the world, amongst the people of Israel. It is our ultimate challenge to make ourselves worthy of having God's presence dwell within our midst.