After Yetziat Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, we reach the third stage of the building of Am Yisrael — the Mishkan. In between the command to build the Mishkan and the execution of these instructions, one of the most tragic events in our history occurs, one which nearly resulted in the destruction of Am Yisrael: chet ha’egel (the sin of the golden calf). Looking back on this event many centuries later, we find it difficult to understand and determine what exactly happened. It appears very irrational. How could it be that just several weeks after the nation experienced Ma’amad Har Sinai they violate one of the commandments they received directly from Hashem at that event? Here, we will focus particularly on the changes that occurred as a result of chet ha’egel, if indeed there were such changes.
One approach maintains that chronologically, the incident of the egel preceded Hashem’s command that Benei Yisrael build a Mishkan. Rashi, for example, writes (Shemot 31:18) that the Torah does not always follow chronological sequence, and although the command of the Mishkan appears in the Torah prior to the chet ha’egel narrative, chet ha’egel actually occurred earlier. One might explain that according to this approach, the command to erect a Mishkan resulted from chet ha’egel, which revealed Benei Yisrael’s weakness, their inability to serve a purely abstract God. They searched for something tangible and felt a need for some physical representation of God. Hashem therefore commands, “They shall make for Me a Mikdash, and I will dwell among them” (Parashat Teruma, Shemot 25:8). The Almighty wishes, as it were, to dwell among people in His residence. There is undoubtedly a contradiction between God and the concept of a Mikdash. But in truth, it is not the Almighty who requires a Mikdash, but rather the human being. The Mishkan represents a compromise between the absolute truth and man’s limited nature. It is Hashem’s concession to our human quality that seeks to satisfy the senses, as well. And so, the physical, tangible Mishkan takes the place of the golden calf, as through it Benei Yisrael can more easily connect to the abstract God. It would thus turn out that the Mikdash is “be’di’eved” (not the ideal), and so in our times, when human thought has developed and overcome this need for a physical representation in religious worship, there is no longer a need for a Mikdash.
The second approach, however, would claim that the first approach is incorrect. After all, the prophetic vision of a Beit Ha’mikdash appears even before chet ha’egel. We read about it already in the shirat ha’yam — the song sung by Benei Yisrael after they left Egypt and passed through the sea: “You will bring them and implant them in Your own mountain, the location for Your dwelling that you made, Hashem; the Mikdash that Your hands, Hashem, established” (Shemot 15:17). At the pinnacle of Benei Yisrael’s prophetic stature, the Beit Ha’mikdash constitutes in their eyes the ultimate form of divine revelation. Additionally, as mentioned, the Torah presents the command concerning the Mishkan before chet ha’egel. This sequence was arranged by Hashem Himself and thus bears significance. Indeed, as Rashi writes, the Torah is not written according to chronological, historical, factual sequence. Therefore, when the Torah discusses before chet ha’egel the Mishkan, the revelation of the Shechina in this world, it indicates that this physical place stems from the ideal arrangement of divine revelation in the world. It is not a concession but rather the ideal; the Mishkan is built despite chet ha’egel, not because of it.
In truth, “They shall make for Me a Mikdash” appears quite primitive; the Almighty does not need a home in which to sleep and eat. The Rambam establishes two purposes served by the Mikdash: “He commanded us to build a Templefor the avoda [sacrificial service], where sacrificing and the burning of the eternal fire will take place, and to which the festival pilgrimage and gathering will take place each year.” Thus, the korbanot and aliya le’regel are the two functions of the Mikdash. This means that the Mikdash has value even without korbanot, and korbanot may be brought even without a Mikdash. The concept of the Mikdash is the encounter between Am Yisrael and Hashem. This encounter involves more than merely an individual experience of revelation that could occur anywhere in earth. Rather, Am Yisrael has a land in the center of which is the city of Yerushalayim, which contains within it the Mikdash, the point that unifies all of Am Yisrael where the nation as well as the entire world can meet the Almighty. Today, of course, we are lacking only the location of this encounter, and with Hashem’s help will earn the privilege of the return of this site, speedily and in our days.