Yishai Keller
Former Shaliach in Montreal


Why was the incident regarding the golden calf so severe that the Almighty wanted to destroy Benei Yisrael on its account?

Am Yisrael declared regarding the golden calf: “This is your god, Israel, who took you out from the landof Egypt!” (Shemot 32:4). Were Benei Yisrael really foolish enough to believe that this calf, which they fashioned only that day, was responsible for rescuing them from Egyptthree months earlier? Clearly not. Their intention was rather that the Shechina, which took them from Egypt, now dwells upon this calf. Until this point, Moshe was the “object” upon which the Shechina rested; now that Moshe has not returned, the calf has taken his place.

But if so, then this sin was not a terribly grave one. After all, the people sought merely to assign a place for the residence of the Shechina, which is, indeed, the whole idea underlying the Mishkan!

Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl explains that the sin and the ensuing divine anger involved Benei Yisrael’s assumption that they can force the Almighty to bestow His Shechina upon the golden calf. The sin’s severity lay in the fact that they thought they could compel Hashem to do something; this in itself already constitutes a very grave sin.

The construction of the Mishkan thus came to atone for this misdeed. As we know, there were two types of donations given towards the building of the Mishkan (besides the donation of funds for the communal sacrifices). The first is mentioned at the outset of our parasha: “Speak to Benei Yisrael, that they shall take a donation for Me; you shall take My donation from any man whose heart stirs him” (Shemot 25:2). This donation was not mandatory, and there was no fixed amount to be donated. Rather, “any man whose heart stirs him” came forth to donate however much he desired, and whoever did not come did not donate anything. But there was a second donation, as well – that of the machatzit ha’shekel (the half shekel): “This is what everyone who is counted in the census shall give: a half shekel by the sanctuary weight” (Shemot 30:13). This donation was mandatory upon the entire nation, each member of which had to pay the precisely same amount – a half-shekel each: “The rich shall not increase, and the poor shall not decrease” (Shemot 30:15). Hashem commanded that this money go towards the construction of the sockets supporting the Mishkan, which formed the foundation of the entire structure of the Mishkan, so that every member of the nation will have a share in at least the Mishkan’s foundation. Thereafter, there is room for personal contributions and donations. At the foundation, however, every person must have a share, and there is thus no room for personal donations – each person gives the same amount, precisely as Hashem prescribed.

The same is true regarding all the work for the Mishkan’s construction. There was no room for anyone’s personal intuition and ideas. Everything was done precisely as Hashem had commanded. And the question naturally arises, why did Hashem determine everything Himself? Why did He leave no room for personal intuition?

The answer is that this is precisely the means of rectifying the sin of the golden calf. In this incident, the people tried to force the Almighty to bestow His Shechina upon them. So now, Hashem tells them: you now submit yourselves to My will. Here, with regard to the construction of the Mishkan, there is no room for personal intuition and creativity. Only after the people made their donations for the Mishkan’s basis and foundations, there is room for each individual’s personal donation, each one giving as much as he likes.

This distinction between the obligation to contribute and the place for personal initiative and intuition applies more generally, as well, to all of Jewish practice. Judaism features certain basic tenets and halachot in which everyone is obligated, and regarding which there is no room for personal intuition. But once we fulfill all the halachot, there is then room for each person to express his personal point of connection and identify those areas to which he relates more and in his own specific way. Hashem has left us room for our own intuition in order for us to each find his own place, so long as we remain within the boundaries of halacha.