Building the Mishkan, Before and After the Calf

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Death By Human and Heavenly Courts

An early verse in the parsha, 35;2, warns of death for any Jew who performs melachah, creative labor, on Shabbat. Meshech Hochmah addresses the verse’s use of the passive form, yumat, will be put to death, where the Torah usually signals a court-administered death penalty with the words mot yumat, a doubled verb to signal active penalty.

Shemot 21;29 offers another example, in the context of an ox known to gore people whose owner fails to keep a good enough watch on the ox to avoid another death. There, Mechilta tells us the yumat form signals the penalty will come from Heaven.

VaYikra 24;21 obligates repayment when a Jew kills another Jew’s animal, says yumat if the Jew killed a person. According to a tradition from the House of Hizkiyah (Sanhedrin 79b), this verse exempts hayyevei mitot shogegin, people who commit a capital crime without full awareness of what they are doing, from any monetary fine. Courts will not be involved, because the killing was unwitting, yet the verse says yumat, because Gd will take care of it.

The idea is even more plausible if we take this verse to refer to abortion, where Bereshit 9;6 legislates the death penalty for a non-Jew who performs one, but leaves the punishment to Heaven (Meshech Hochmah assumes it is death, although he also sends us to Tosafot, Sanhedrin 59a, who remind us that abortion to save the mother’s life is obligatory, Tosafot thinks likely for non-Jews as well).

Shabbat Violation and Death

For Shabbat, the Torah generally says mot yumat, the court metes out punishment. In our parsha, Meshech Hochmah suggests yumat might apply to violations of Shabbat during the building of the Mishkan (the topic of the verse), because there was not yet a functioning court system, so mittah bidei shamayim, Heaven handed-out death, was the only option.

The idea explains why Yoma 66b assumed those who worshipped the Golden Calf were put to death by the sword. Avodah zarah, worship of any power other than Gd, usually incurs sekilah, stoning. Before the court system started, Noahide punishments remained in place, death by the sword for all crimes.

(The Noahide system has much to teach us about halachah’s view of non-Jews and of Jews, based on what the Torah prescribed for them and for us. I once wrote an article on the topic, titled “Involuntary Particularism: What the Noahide Laws Tell Us About Citizenship and Alienage.”)

In Ki Tissa, 31;13, when the Torah discussed Shabbat observance le-doroteichem, for your generations, the phrase mot yumat workedbecause by then courts were on the job.

Building the Mishkan on Shabbat, Before and After the Calf

Based on a switch of order between Ki Tissa and Va-Yakhel, Meshech Hochmah advances a remarkable idea about the damage caused by the Golden Calf. The verses in Ki Tissa reverse the order of our parsha, placing Shabbat after the discussion of building the Mishkan. Before the Golden Calf, Jews would have been allowed to build the Mishkan even on Shabbat, says Meshech Hochmah.

To explain why, he notes the Torah permits all necessary services of the Mishkan on Shabbat, regardless of melachah rules (his examples are roasting and cleaning the Omer offering of impurities, or baking the two loaves offered on Shavuot). Since the Mishkan demonstrates Gd’s continuing Providence, makes a point of Gd’s involvement in the present, it overrides Shabbat, where Jews refrain from creativity to testify to Gd’s having created the world out of nothing in the past.

The building of the Mishkan does none of that. Until it is operational, the Divine Presence is not in residence among the Jewish people, and cannot push aside Shabbat. Except.

The lack of Divine Presence only happened after the sin of the Golden Calf. Before, Gd had promised to appear and bless the Jews wherever they mentioned the Name, Shemot 20;21, individuals too. Each Jew could have been the vehicle for Gd’s greater Presence in the world, were we to have succeeded in maintaining the situation after the Giving of the Torah.

In that alternate history, the Mishkan would have been a place to perform certain services, without significantly more of a role in bringing the Divine into the world. In that alternate history, building the Mishkan would have been a necessary preparation for the services there, similar to baking the two loaves of Shavu’ot, and permitted on Shabbat.

With the sin, the Mishkan became the avenue to Presence, and until it was built, there was no right to push aside Shabbat (to get to Presence does not allow violating Shabbat, performing the service in recognition of an existing Presence does). To mark the switch, Va-Yakhel puts Shabbat first, in the order of the verses and axiologically (the word means as a matter of value system; sorry, it’s just a word I never use in a sentence, where my teacher, R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, often did, so I’m too excited not to do it.

Speaking of R. Lichtenstein, he too suggested a change in the role of the Mishkan after the sin, based on Ramban’s view Gd had always planned to have one. Not out topic now, but I think Meshech Hochmah was relying on Ramban’s view without mentioning him, the Mishkan was always slated, but took on a different role after the sin.

Meshech Hochmah also does not address Avot 3;6, where R. Halafta of the village of Hananya cites the verse in Shemot about Gd’s Presence coming where Jews invoke the Name to prove any Jew who studies Torah has the Presence of Gd with him).

Rashi sees it differently, he concedes, but stands by his idea.

Two ideas about the Mishkan and its relationship to Shabbat. First, building it on Shabbat incurred a different death penalty than most Shabbat violation, at the hands of Heaven, and second, the Golden Calf made the Mishkan more vital to experiencing Gd’s Presence, because the sin stopped the previous system of Jews themselves being the ma’on la-Shechinah, the vehicle of the Divine Presence, by speaking of Gd.

Thoughtless Dedication Leads to Thoughtful Construction

Meshech Hochmah makes two separate points in his comment to 35;31 (really, the joining of 35;30 to 31) where Moshe tells the Jewish people Hashem had chosen Betzalel to direct the building of the Mishkan. First, he addresses Betzalel’s lineage, 35;30, to explain why the Torah points out his grandfather was Hur and he was of the tribe of Yehudah.

Both ancestors modeled self-sacrificing dedication. At the Sea, Nachshon (of the tribe of Yehudah) jumped in before it split. Meshech Hochmah assumes he did not weigh the odds, make a list of pros and cons, he heard of the need and jumped to it, for all he knew at the cost of his life. Hur in fact gave his life, according to the Midrash, to try to dissuade the Jewish people from committing the sin of the Golden Calf.

To Meshech Hochmah, both show mesirut nefesh, life-threatening dedication, comes without careful thought or application of wisdom. Those would get in the way. (I think he means such laudable acts extend from deeply embedded emotions, the act flows automatically, unthinkingly.)

If I stopped there, dayenu, he would have illuminated us. To add to it, he says it was for that reason the verse says Gd filled Betzalel with hochmah and da’at, wisdom and knowledge, the intellectual qualities needed to lead the building of the Mishkan. He adds ve-haven, my favorite word in his commentary, where he calls on us to realize he is making a significant point. Part of the road to wisdom and thoughtfulness, I hear him saying, lies in foregoing thought and intellect when necessary. Intellectualism must be built on a foundation of knowing when it is not appropriate. The legacy of Betzalel’s forefathers, who knew when to act rather than think, earned Betzalel the right to think where it fit.

A counterintuitive point, therefore worth chewing over before we just accept it (or just dismiss it). Ve-haven.

Hur’s Other Gift to His Grandson

Let me go out of order, because the comment to 37;1 again links Betzalel to his grandfather. The Torah says Betzalel made the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, the only time it credits him with building a specific part of the MishkanMeshech Hochmah first ascribes this to the fact of all the other parts of the Mishkan eventually being built again, for the Second Temple. There was ever only one Aron, however.

Meshech Hochmah says a worry we see in a few places made Betzalel the lone candidate to build it. Yoma 54b tells us when non-Jews entered the Temple (the Gemara does not say which non-Jews), they saw the keruvim, the angelic forms on top of the Aron, intertwined with each other, a symbol of the connection between Gd and the Jewish people.

They took it sexually, as boors will do, brought it out in public to mock the Jewish people’s worship. Meshech Hochmah thinks it explains why the Aron was not made of silver, as Shemot 20;20 had felt the need to warn against making gods of silver. A silver Aron would have fostered the accusation the Jews had an idol and pretended it was to worship Gd.

Once they committed the Golden Calf, gold became questionable, too. A golden Aron might look like the Jews were making magical items, in the sense of magic as a way to control gods. The one Jew exempt from that accusation was Hur, who gave his life fighting against the Calf. Only his grandson, bearer of the familial anti-idolatry tradition, could build the Aron free of any such taint.

The tribe of Yehudah as a whole, and Hur in particular, made Betzalel the right man for the job with their dedication to Gd, unthinking self-sacrifice and, for Hur, implacably opposed to worship of any power other than Gd.

Bringing Worlds and the Jewish People Together

Berachot 55a says Betzalel knew how to combine letters, a reference to mystical powers that tap into how Gd created the world through language, topics on which I am certainly not qualified to comment. Fortunately, we only need to know the basic idea to grasp Meshech Hochmah’s insight.

The Mishkan was going to bring the Jewish people together, unite them in Gd’s service. While each individual Jew has sanctity, many other items have greater sanctity. As a unified whole, though, nothing out-sanctity’s the Jewish people, the reason they are referred to as reishit, the first.

More than just the contrast between individual and collective—an important point of its own, in our hyper-individualistic times—Meshech Hochmah uses it to explain the change of order between Terumah and Va-YakhelTerumah listed individual pieces of furniture first, the structure as a whole later, where Va-Yakhel reversed the order.

(Rashi quotes an idea of Hazal’s; Meshech Hochmah feels no need to address it, just offers his own view.)

Terumah had Jews donating materials and money, as individuals, symbolized by making the separate pieces of furniture, each of sanctity that could outweigh individual Jews. When the structure was put together (by Betzalel, who knew le-tzaref otiyot, to combine letters as Gd did when creating the world), it became a unit, more similar to the Jewish people as a whole, and took precedence to anything else.

For Meshech Hochmah, the building of the Mishkan demonstrates the move from the individual to the collective, with the collective far more than the sum of its parts. All guided by Betzalel, qualified by his family lineage as well as his own skills to produce a structure that will serve its purpose as a place of Gd’s Presence among the Jewish people.

About Gidon Rothstein

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