Mishkan and Renewal

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1. When Did Hashem Command Moshe to Build the Mishkan?

The section that precedes Parashat Teruma states:

And Moshe went up the mountain and a cloud covered the mountain… And He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud. And the vision of Hashem’s glory was like a fire devouring the top of the mountain to the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moshe entered the mountain and he climbed the mountain and he remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (24:15-18).

The Torah then continues with the command to build the Mishkan:

And Hashem told Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel and they should take for me a teruma…” (25:1-2).

A straightforward reading of the Torah indicates that the commandment to build the Mishkan was given immediately after ma’amad Har Sinai, at the beginning of the forty days Moshe spent on Har Sinai in order to receive the Torah.

However, not all of the commentators accepted this straightforward reading. Rashi writes in Parashat Ki Tisa (31:18):

Ein mukdam u-me’uchar baTorah. The egel episode occurred many days before the commandment to build the Mishkan, for the luchot were broken on the seventeenth of Tamuz, and on Yom Kippur Hashem was appeased regarding Yisrael, and on the following day they began to donate towards the Mishkan.

Rashi, based on a midrash (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 31) applies the rule of “ein mukdam u-me’uchar ba-Torah” (the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order) to the commandment to build the Mishkan. According to his interpretation, Hashem commanded the building of the Mishkan only after Moshe received the second luchot, which followed the sin of the Golden Calf.

However, Rashi’s interpretation is very difficult. If the commandment to build the Mishkan was issued after Moshe received theluchot, how are we to explain the verse regarding the construction of the aron: “And you shall place in the aron the eidut (literally – testimony) that I shall give you” (25:16). “Eidut” seems to be referring to “luchot ha-eidut,” which were placed in the aron. However, since, according to Rashi, the luchot had already been given to Moshe at the time of this commandment, why is the future tense used? Rashi was aware of this problem and therefore did not interpret the term ‘eidut” as a reference to the luchot. Rashi had to search for something else that was placed in the aron that had not yet been given. In Parashat Ha’azinu (Devarim 31:26), Moshe commands the Leviim to place the sefer Torah in the aron. Therefore, Rashi interpreted the term “eidut” in this pasuk, as a reference to the seferTorah that had not yet been written. The viability of this interpretation may depend on whether the sefer Torah was placed inside thearon itself or in a separate compartment adjacent to the aron (see Bava Batra 14a).

However, this interpretation cannot be applied to the same term as it is used in Parashat Pekudei (40:20), when the Torah describes how the Mishkan was erected: “And he took and placed the eidut in the aron.” In this pasuk, it is clear that Moshe already had acquired the “eidut” to place in the aron, and it therefore cannot be referring to the sefer Torah, which had not yet been completed. Rashi in Pekudei is forced to explain the term “eidut” in this context as a reference to the luchot. The difficulty with Rashi’s interpretation is obvious.

The straightforward reading was adopted by the Ramban (25:1 and 35:1), but this approach can be challenged as well. InParashat Tetzave, the Torah commands the construction of the mizbach ha-ketoret (the golden altar used for incense). At the end of that section, we find the following verse: “And Aharon shall make atonement upon the corners [of the altar] once a year from the blood of the chatat kipurim (sin-offering of atonement); once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations” (30:10).Chatat ha-kipurim seems to be a reference to the sin-offering brought on Yom Kippur. This can be explained smoothly according to the position taken by Rashi, who argues that the commandment to build the Mishkan came after the historical Yom Kippur, when Moshe Rabbeinu came down with the second luchot. However, according to the Ramban, these parashiot were given before the cheit ha-egel. If so, what chatat ha-kipurim that is brought once a year can the Torah be referring to?

Perhaps, the idea of a yearly day of penitence preceded the historical Yom Kippur. After all, the Torah simply says once a year, with no reference to a specific date. The tenth of Tishrei may have been chosen only after the cheit haegel and the historical forgiveness that Yisrael attained on that day, as it says:

And it shall be a statute for you forever, in the seventh month on the tenth of the month … For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before Hashem … And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins once in the year. (Vayikra 16:29-34)

2. The Meaning of the Mishkan

Is the argument between Rashi and the Ramban merely a question of Biblical exegesis? Might there be a more basic issue that divides the two approaches? Are they perhaps debating the role and meaning of the Mishkan?

We already noted that the Ramban’s position is solidly grounded in Scripture. According to his interpretation, the order of theparashiot flows in a smooth and orderly fashion. Nevertheless, it is important to question the location of the command to construct theMishkan. After all, Moshe entered the cloud at Har Sinai to receive the luchot, the Torah, and the mitzva (24:12). According to the Ramban, the first thing that Moshe is told is to build the Mishkan. Although it is reasonable that Moshe received more than just this commandment during those forty days, we still have to understand why this particular mitzva was the first given and why it was the only one mentioned explicitly.

The Ramban explains this at the beginning of our parasha (25:1):

Upon telling the aseret ha-dibbrot to the nation of Israel face to face, and commanding them through Moshe certain mitzvot that are like paradigms to the mitzvot of the Torah, just as our sages acted with respect to potential geirim, and Yisrael accepted upon themselves to do all that they would be commanded by Moshe, and he made a covenant with them on all that – at this point they are His people and He is their God… And behold they are sanctified and worthy that there be a Mikdash in their midst so that His Shekhina can dwell amongst them. Therefore, they were initially commanded regarding the Mishkan.

Another reason why the Ramban insists on a seamless connection between ma’amad Har Sinai and the Mishkan emerges from the Ramban’s continuation:

And the esoteric meaning of the Mishkan is that divine glory that dwelt on Har Sinai will in a hidden way dwell in it. And just as it says, “And the glory of Hashem dwelt on Har Sinai,”… so it says with regard to the Mishkan, “And the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.” And within the context of the Mishkan, the glory revealed to Yisrael at Har Sinai remained with them … and just as it says, “From the heavens He sounded His voice”… so too by the Mishkan, “And he heard the voice speaking to him from above the kaporet from between the keruvim.

According to the Ramban, the Mishkan is a continuation of the revelation at Sinai. Through the Mishkan and the luchot located at its heart, the Mikdash in Yerushalayim is connected to the Sinaitic revelation. This idea is central in the Ramban’s thought and appears a number of times in his writings.

Returning to Rashi, we have already noted one of the exegetical difficulties with his interpretation. However, there is a more basic question – what drove Rashi (and the Midrash) to interpret this parasha in a non-sequential fashion? As we mentioned in last week’s shiur, the purpose of the Torah is not to document history, and it is therefore not bound to a chronological interpretation. Nevertheless, the default explanation of the Torah should be based on historical order, and any explanation which departs from this order must be based on a compelling argument. What led Rashi to depart from the straightforward explanation of our parasha?

Some explain that Rashi argues with the Ramban regarding the basic objective of the Mishkan. While according to the Ramban, the Mishkan is part of the original divine plan, Rashi maintains that the mitzva to build the Mishkan is a result of the sin of the Golden Calf (cheit ha-egel). In other words, had it not been for the cheit ha-egel, there would have been no need for a material and concrete expression of Hashem’s Shekhina.

The Torah is careful to emphasize the absolute absence of any physical expressions of Hashem during the Har Sinai revelation:

And Hashem said to Moshe: “So shall you say to the children of Israel; you have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens. Do not make of Me a god of silver and a god of gold you shall not make for yourselves. An altar of earth shall you make for Me, and you shall sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and shelamim sacrifices…” (Shemot 20:18-20, see alsoDevarim 4:15).

The Seforno comments:

“Do not make of Me a god of silver” – and since you have seen that you need no intermediary to approach Me, do not make of Me these as intermediaries. “An altar of earth shall you make for Me” – and also you should not need to construct temples of silver, gold, and precious stones so that I should approach you. An earthen altar will suffice.

Ideally, according to the Seforno, there is no need for a Temple; a simple earthen altar is sufficient. We can approach Hakadosh Barukh Hu directly, without any material props. In Parashat Ki Tisa, the Seforno introduces the cheit ha-egel as follows:

After describing the good attained during Moshe’s forty day stay on the mountain, [the Torah] explains why the ultimate objective that the Almighty had intended for the giving of the Torah contained in the statement “and you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and in the statement “an earthen altar shall you make for Me” was not attained, to the point that they were forced to make a Mishkan. And it [the Torah] informs that this occurred due to the evil choice of Yisrael. (Shemot 31:18)

Similarly, some explain that according to Rashi, the fact that Hashem did not command the building of the Mishkan until after the cheit ha-egel shows that it was needed only because the failure of the cheit ha-egel indicated that Yisrael required something tangible to anchor their worship.

According to the Seforno, not only the Mishkan that was built in the wilderness, but the Beit Ha-Mikdash itself is a result of Yisrael’s weaknesses that brought about the cheit ha-egel. However, my friend and colleague, R. Menachem Leibtag, has noted that the Mikdash certainly predates the cheit ha-egel; it is already mentioned in shirat ha-yam: “Your hands have established a mikdash forHashem” (15:17). In addition, the Torah refers to the “house of Hashem” in Parashat Mishpatim (23:19).

There is an additional problem that must be addressed according to Rashi’s approach. If the commandment to construct theMishkan came after the second luchot, why did the Torah present it immediately following the ascent of Moshe to Har Sinai? What was so pressing that forced the Torah to go out of its way, as it were, to create the impression that this command preceded cheit ha-egel?

Many answers can be suggested. In my humble opinion, the most compelling reason is that the Torah wanted to undermine the suggestion that the Mishkan and Mikdash result from Yisrael’s weakness that led to the cheit ha-egel. Even though the actual command to build the Mishkan followed the cheit ha-egel, the Torah did not want us to consider the Mishkan or Mikdash a concession to human weakness. Therefore, we will reject the position of the Seforno in our attempt to explain Rashi.

If my theory is correct, we must go back and ask ourselves why Rashi insisted on placing the commandment to build theMishkan after the second luchot. I think the there is a twofold answer to this question. Firstly, it seems that Rashi did not share the Ramban’s view that the Mishkan was a continuity of Sinai. Certainly, the Mishkan was to be built so that Hashem should dwell amongst Yisrael, as it were. However, that does not necessarily imply continuation of the Sinai revelation. Therefore, Rashi is free from the Ramban’s insistence that the command to build the Mishkan be connected to Sinai. However, we still must explain what drove Rashi to insist that the command came after the second luchot.

I believe that Rashi viewed the command to build the Mishkan after the second luchot as an expression of the renewal of the covenant severed due to the cheit ha-egel. There are a number of scriptural arrows that point in this direction. Firstly, the choice of Betzalel, the grandson of Chur, is telling. Chur, the son of Kalev (and Miriam, according to one opinion; see Sota 11b), was appointed by Moshe, along with Aharon, to guide the nation during Moshe’s forty day stay on Har Sinai (24:14). Despite being one of Yisrael’s most prominent leaders (see Shemot, ch. 17), Chur never appears in the Torah again; according to our Sages, he was killed when trying to prevent the cheit ha-egel (see Sanhedrin 7a). Is the appointment of Betzalel to build the Mishkan meant to symbolize that through the Mishkan, Yisrael will regain what was destroyed during the tragic episode of the egel?

Second, the communal collection of jewelry to build the Mishkan, especially the nezem (35:22), is reminiscent of making of the Golden Calf (32:3). Is this scriptural association meant to indicate the process of teshuva that Yisrael undergo while building theMishkan? Finally, when the Mishkan is finally erected, Aharon, who was involved in making the Golden Calf, is charged with bringing a calf as a sin-offering (Vayikra 9:2), so that Hashem, who hasn’t appeared to Yisrael since ma’amad Har Sinai, will once again appear to them (verse 4).

All the above points to the Mishkan as an expression of the atonement awarded Yisrael after the cheit ha-egel and the renewal of the covenant between Hashem and Yisrael. Perhaps this is the reason Rashi insisted on a post-egel interpretation of the command to build the Mishkan. As opposed to the Seforno’s interpretation, the Mishkan and Mikdash are necessary in the ideal sense for a nation that is meant to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19:6); its purpose is to allow the glory of Hashem to dwell in their midst. Can that be the reason that according to Rashi, the Torah camouflaged the historical context of this parasha, placing it before the cheit ha-egel?

This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission.

About Yair Kahn

Rav Yair Kahn has been a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion since 1987 and is head of its Overseas Students Program. He has been the coordinator of the Virtual Beit Midrash Gemara Iyun Shiur for several years.

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