Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
Currently CFO,Torah MiTzion
In the simple reading of the story the Mishkan seems to be an integral part of the revelation at Sinai. Even as the unique revelation is taking place, Hashem is already teaching us how to recreate the connection between us, how to build a portable Har Sinai, so He can dwell within our camp everywhere we go.However, Rashi surprises us and claims that the narrative is not in chronological order. The most glaring change he suggests it that the entire command to build the Mishkan takes place after the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Why does Rashi feel the need to change the order from the simple reading of the text? Or as Nechama Leibowitz would say – what is bothering Rashi?
Interestingly, the concept of the mishkan in general appears relatively late in the book. However, immediately after the 10 commandments, before parashat Mispatim, we meet a command to build a simple earth altar. And alongside that – a prohibition against creating gods of gold and silver. What is this doing here? How does that correlate with the Mishkan, which will have quite a lot of gold and silver in it?
Both the Iben Ezra and the Sforno understand this paragraph as dealing with one of the most fundamental problems in the worship of Hashem in general; the tension between the metaphysical G-d, and the materialistic world. In Sinai we ‘saw’ G-d, and we learnt that he is so great that he cannot be grasped at all in the material world. He is greater than any manifestation.
Consequently, any attempt to channel His presence to a determined locale, constitute the antithesis of the proper worship of God. We need to recognize that we cannot possibly build a place grand enough to house his presence. Therefor we build an altar as simple as possible to signify that we are not even trying. Hence: “You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves”.
While this all makes sense, it seems to totally contradict everything we know about the Mishkan. It is full of gold and silver, including the Keruvim, which are made of solid gold. It is a (portable) permanent structure. There is no earthen altar at all.
What can explain the seeming contradiction? What happened?
Rashi provides an answer when he changes the order of the story. According to his revised storyline, the Golden Calf is the reason for the change; we were only told to build the mishkan after and in response to that sin.
The people demand of Aharon to ‘make us a god’. What are they thinking? Do they really think you can just create a god? Do they think that this statue is Hashem?
In fact, they made the mistake they were just warned to avoid: “You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me”. They are trying to create a physical manifestation of Hashem. Aharon, after fashioning the calf proclaims: ‘A holiday for Hashem tomorrow!’ The people still see themselves as worshipping Hashem! In other words, the golden calf is meant to somehow channel the presence of The Lord and bridge the gap between God and the people.
It would seem that after the golden calf Hashem realized that the people can’t handle his high expectations. In response to the people’s failings, God makes what might be thought of as a compromise. He provides them with a physical mode of worship the people can comprehend. God confines His infinite self within the finite space of the sanctuary. Not as an ideal but rather as an acceptance of our limitations (be it an inherent human flaw or due to our being too steeped in Egyptian idolatry).
Of course this raises a huge theological question; is the Mishkan merely a compromise which stems from human’s limited nature, as Rashi’s reading of the narrative suggests? Or is it the ideal form of worship, a ‘portable Har Sinai’ by which God’s presence can dwell in our midst?
This is not merely an historical or academic question. It has direct ramifications on how we envision the third Beit Hamikdash and the future redemption. Will we renew the same rituals and sacrifices as described in the Torah, or perhaps we as a society advanced beyond that point, and reached a higher spiritual level?
It seems that the Torah remains ambiguous on that point. Throughout the generations both directions have been represented by Chazal, and perhaps the perennial tension between the two options, without ever deciding, is the answer itself.