When was Moshe Commanded to Build the Mishkan, and Why?

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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PARASHAT TERUMA

GUEST SICHA BY HARAV YITZCHAK LEVI

 

When was Moshe Commanded to Build the Mishkan, and Why?

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

The Rishonim debate when the Divine command to build the Mishkan was given.  Rashi, invoking the principle that "the Torah does not follow chronological order," maintains that the command was given after the sin of the golden calf.  Ramban, who disagrees with this exegetical approach, insists that it was given exactly where it appears – i.e., prior to the sin of the golden calf.  While these two approaches would appear, at first glance, to be simply a matter of exegetical interpretation, in this shiur we shall examine the spiritual messages underlying each position. 

 

As we know, Sefer Shemot is divided into three sections: the Exodus from Egypt, the journeying of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, and finally – starting with our parasha – the building of the Mishkan.  The parashot from here until the end of Sefer Shemot are arranged as follows:

Teruma-Tetzaveh – God's command to Moshe to build the Mishkan;

Ki Tisa – the sin of the golden calf;

Vayakhel-Pekudei – Moshe's command to the nation concerning the building of the Mishkan.

 

Moshe ascends Mount Sinai three times, each time for a period of forty days.  The first time, he ascends in order to receive the first set of tablets.  The second time, he ascends in order to appease God following the sin of the golden calf.  The third time, he receives the second set of tablets.  According to Rashi's explanation, the command to Moshe concerning the building of the Mishkan, recounted in our parasha, is a reaction to the sin of the golden calf; it is conveyed to Moshe during his second ascent, in parashat Ki Tisa.  According to this understanding, then, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai in order to receive the first tablets and the commandments in parashat Mishpatim; then Bnei Yisrael sinned in worshipping the calf and Moshe broke the tablets; Moshe then ascended the mountain to plead with God and there he received the command to build the Mishkan; then he descended and commanded Am Yisrael to build the Mishkan, as he had been commanded while atop the mountain. 

 

According to Ramban, on the other hand, the command concerning the building of the Mishkan was given at the place where it appears in the Torah – during Moshe's first ascent, in parashat Teruma.  According to this view, Moshe ascended the mountain in order to receive the first set of tablets, and commandments in parashat Mishpatim, and the command to build the Mishkan.  Then Bnei Yisrael sinned in worshipping the calf and Moshe broke the tablets, following which he went back up the mountain to pray to God on behalf of the nation, and then descended and commanded Bnei Yisrael with regard to the Mishkan.

 

Thus far, the debate does indeed seem to be a purely exegetical question.  But we must ask ourselves what causes Rashi to insist that the order of events differs from the chronological order of the parashot.  At first glance, the advantage of Rashi's view would seem to concern the selection of the Leviim.  We learn of their selection only in parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, and according to Rashi this special choice was made only after the sin of the golden calf, i.e., their selection to perform the Divine service was not God's ideal first choice.  According to Ramban's view, the Leviim had been chosen by God to serve in the Mikdash from the outset.  Although this detail seems to make little difference, it is decisive in molding two completely different views of Am Yisrael and of what changed in the wake of the golden calf.

 

According to Rashi, originally all of Bnei Yisrael were meant to have been God's servants and to enjoy the splendor of His Presence: literally a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  However, after the sin of the golden calf it became apparent that Am Yisrael was not ready for such intimate proximity to God at all times.  Therefore, God's encounter with Am Yisrael became limited to one tribe; only they could enter the Mikdash in order to serve God directly.  In Ramban's view, God never meant to reveal His full splendor to all of Am Yisrael.  The choice of the kohanim was one that God desired even prior to the sin of the golden calf.  In other words, from the outset God had intended to reveal Himself to Am Yisrael through nature and through hidden miracles, while only the kohanim would encounter Him directly in the Temple.

 

We may express this disparity in terms of the difference between chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Bereishit.  Chapter 1 describes the creation of man where God has no revealed contact with him; man is the ruler, the conqueror, and does not encounter God directly.  In chapter 2, however, God directly commands man to tend the garden, and man subsequently hears "the voice of God walking about in the garden in the breeze of the day."  In a situation of such closeness, it is clear that Adam must be banished from the Garden of Eden following his sin.  When man is close to God and he sins, he is banished to a world – our material world - in which the encounter with God is not so clear and easy. 

 

Rashi understands the order of the parashot as following chapter 2 of Bereishit. Creation was meant to be close to God at all times, and as a result of sin, the world fell into a situation in which the encounter with God is conducted via nature, in a manner that is not open and obvious.  Ramban, in contrast, understands the order of the parashot as reflecting chapter 1 of Bereishit, whereby God never had any intention of revealing Himself in His cloud of glory on a constant basis.

 

From the above, we learn that when there is a debate among commentators concerning the order of texts, even though the issue seems to be simply a matter of exegesis, we must try to understand the philosophical root that gives rise to the various opinions, and for what reason some Rishonim understand Biblical chronology differently than what the literal text would suggest.

 

(This shiur was given on Shabbat Parashat Teruma 5763 [2003].)