The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael
Rav Avraham Walfish
Last week's and this week's portion provides us with nearly 250 pesukim
which describe in excruciating and repetitive detail how the mishkan was
constructed. It is undoubtedly important to know that the mishkan was, indeed,
constructed. In fact the Ramban, in his introduction to Shemot, explains that
the climax of the book is in its last pesukim, which describe how the glory of
Hashem fills the newly-consecrated sanctuary. In the Ramban's words:
"The exile is
not concluded until they return to their place and to the spiritual level of
their fathers, and when they left Egypt, even though they departed from the
house of bondage, they were still considered exiled, because they were in a
foreign land wandering in the desert. When they came to Mt. Sinai and built a
sanctuary and the Holy One, be He blessed returned His Presence to dwell among
them, then they returned to the level of their fathers... and then they were
considered redeemed, and this is why the book closes with the construction of
the sanctuary filled continuously with the glory of
Nevertheless it is still not clear why the Torah has to discuss the
construction process at such length and in so much detail. As Ramban remarks, in
his commentary to Shemot: "It would have been sufficient for the entire matter
to say: 'And Moshe told the whole congregation of Israel al the work which
Hashem had commanded him' and: 'The Israelites executed everything as God had
commanded Moses.'" Beyond specific chiddushim that commentators find in each
seemingly repetitive passage (for details see Ramban to 36:8), some commentators
have attempted to find a more general message in the Torah's apparent verbosity.
Ramban (end of 36:8) finds in the loving attention that the Torah lavishes on
the construction process a reflection of the great love that Hashem has for the
Mishkan. Other commentators, such as Rav S.R. Hirsch, focus on the symbolic
meanings of each of the parts of the Mishkan and suggest that the Torah dwells
on the details of the construction to indicate that the workers who performed
the construction needed a profound understanding of the significance of each
detail in order to endow the structure with its symbolic meaning. Nechama
Leibowitz z"l (Commentary to Shemot [Hebrew], pp. 458-461) approvingly cites
Moses Mendelssohn's explanation, in his Beiur to Shemot: "Just as Hashem
commanded his people to consecrate their firstborn and their first fruits to His
name, and Chazal have remarked: 'there is nothing whose beginning is not
sanctified to Heaven', so too He wanted them to dedicate to Him the first fruits
of their thinking and all other talents pertaining to establishing a society and
to consecrate them to His service."
According to Mendelssohn, the Torah concentrates on the labor performed
in the construction of the Mishkan, because the labor is significant in itself,
not only as a means to the goal of producing the sanctuary. Since all "secular"
endeavors are given spiritual meaning by consecrating their "firstfruits" to
Hashem, the Torah indicates the spiritual value of all constructive and creative
professions necessary for the functioning of a society by describing in detail
how the Israelites devoted their first major constructive project to the service
of Hashem (for further discussion of this explanation, see Study Question #1).
We may arrive at a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Torah's
laboriously detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan by noting
the background to our parasha. Between the commandment to construct the Mishkan
(parshiyot Terumah-Tetzaveh) and the actual construction in our parasha, the
intervening parasha of Ki Tissa describes the fateful events surrounding the
golden calf. (Note that I follow Ramban's view, which adheres to the
chronological order of the text. According to Rashi to 31:18 some of the points
in the ensuing discussion would not hold or would need to be modified, but the
basic point would still hold. See Study Question #2.) Following the betrayal of
the Second Commandment by Israel in worshipping the golden calf, Hashem
announces He will not go up in their midst (33:3) and, in contrast to the
promise that He will meet ("ve-no'adti" - 25:22) with Moshe in the Tent of
Meeting (28:43, 29:4, etc.: "mo'ed") and "dwell in their midst" (25:8), Moshe
establishes a Tent of Meeting ("mo'ed") outside the camp of Israel. Only
intensive negotiations by Moshe with Hashem (33:12 etc., 34:9) succeed in
persuading Him to go forward with the project of constructing the Mishkan.
The shadow of the golden calf falls over the entire discussion of the
construction of the Mishkan. This is indicated already by the first word of the
previous parasha: "Vayakhel". This word echoes the opening of the golden calf
episode (32:1): "VAYIKAHEL ha-am al Aharon". However the contrast between the
two similar words, both translated as "congregating," could not be more stark.
In the golden calf episode the Torah employs "vayikahel... AL," indicating a
rowdy and quarrelsome congregating (Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). The opening of our
parasha describes Moshe convening the entire community ("kol adat Benei
Yisrael") in an orderly and respectful convocation.
The full meaning of this wordplay emerges clearly from a careful reading
of the golden calf episode. Commentators such as R. Yehuda HaLevi (Kuzari 1:97)
and Ramban have observed that the golden calf was not designed to serve as a
substitute for Hashem, but rather for Moshe (see Study Question #3). This is,
nonetheless, a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids use of forms
or images for worship of Hashem. However, the sin of the golden calf was not
merely a technical violation of a formal commandment, but rather a case study of
the features which characterize idolatrous worship.
The golden calf episode is framed by the word "arise" ("kum" - 32:1, 6).
The first use of this word indicates the sense of urgency felt by the people,
who demand of Aharon that he arouse himself and hasten to assuage the people's
anxieties by replacing their lost leader Moshe with a visible symbol of the
divine presence. The second use of the word "kum" represents the culmination of
the sin - "vayakumu letzachek". This is the point where the narration of the sin
breaks off and Hashem commands Moshe to go down from the mountain. It seems that
until this point the people have not passed the point of no return. What is the
terrible sin of "vayakumu letzachek," which makes it the climax of the golden
calf? Midrashim (see Rashi) find many sinister overtones associated with the
verb "letzachek," but the peshat meaning seems clear (see Ramban and Benno
Jacob): after sitting down to eat and drink, the people are in a mood of joyous
and boisterous levity. This is why, when Moshe descends from the mountain, he
discerns ľ unlike his disciple Yehoshua ľ that the cries emanating from the
encampment of Israel are not war cries but rather cries of boisterousness (see
Ibn Ezra and Benno Jacob to 32:19).
The Torah regards the levity indicated by "vaykumu letzachek" with grave
seriousness (see Study Question #4). Until this stage, Aharon still has a
measure of control over the people, he can still attempt to steer their
spiritual needs and yearnings towards proper worship of and belief in Hashem,
despite their apparent need for pagan-like modes of representing God. The rowdy
revelry fueled by "eating and drinking" (32:6) is both thoroughly pagan and
uncontrollable. Perhaps we should reformulate this: thoroughly pagan BECAUSE
uncontrollable. Hashem desires worship of people who are in control of their
faculties and can observe the boundaries and proprieties associated with
nearness to the divine Presence (see Study Question #5). Once the people have
reached the point of rowdiness, they have gone completely beyond the bounds
where Hashem can recognize the golden calf as a form of His worship, albeit
illegitimate, and He now can regard their behavior only as idolatrous.
The use of the verb "kum" at the beginning and at the climax of the sin
of the golden calf focuses our attention on the underlying spiritual problem
associated with this story: the people have "lost it". The profound anxiety with
which they urge Aharon to "arise" culminates in the orgiastic abandon with which
they "arise" from their eating and drinking at the end of the narrative. At the
beginning of the story, they are distraught because they fear they have lost
their leader. At the end of the story, they have gone beyond the bounds where
their replacement leader can have any influence upon them. The Torah sums up
Moshe's understanding of the sin and its consequences with the following words
(32:25): "And Moshe saw the people, that they were out of control ("parua"), for
Aharon had let it get out of handů" The "hikahelů al" which opens the golden
calf episode also symbolizes its underlying meaning. The pagan behavior of the
people is rooted in their inability to act coherently as a society and results
in their careering completely out of control. Only drastic and decisive action
on the part of Moshe, breaking the luchot and sending thee Levites on a mission
of mass executions, is able to restore the people to a sense of sobriety and an
awareness of their true station.
Against this backdrop we can understand the purpose of Moshe's convening
("vayakhel") the people at the beginning of parashat Vayakhel. Moshe wants the
entire people (see Ramban to beginning of the parasha) to congregate in an
orderly and purposeful fashion in order to counteract the "vayikahel ha-am al
Aharon," which initiates and symbolizes the golden calf. The people's response
to Moshe's instructions regarding the building of the Mishkan is highly
gratifying. Indeed one might legitimately term the Mishkan project the most
successful building drive in history. As described in pesukim 35:21-36:7 there
is a tremendous outpouring of desire to contribute to the Mishkan and
participate in its construction. Note the appearance in these pesukim of various
sectors of the population: men and women, artisans and skilled women, princes.
Especially noteworthy in these pesukim are the frequent repetition of the word
"all" ("kol" - fourteen times in pesukim 35:21-29 alone) and the repeated stress
that all contributions, whether of labor or of material, were made out of a
voluntary desire to contribute: nesiut lev (35:21, 26, 36:2), nedivut lev
(35:22, 29, compare 355:21: "nadva rucho"). Clearly the Torah wants us to
appreciate how deeply motivated the people are to contribute.
So deeply do the people feel the need to contribute that the workmen in
charge of the building come to Moshe to complain (36:5): "The people are
bringing too much" and the command is issued to stop (!) bringing contributions.
The enormity of the people's desire to contribute bears comparison with the
depth of the people's need for the golden calf in the previous parasha. Indeed
there is a midrash which notes the comparison: when the people are told to
contribute to the golden calf they do so and when they are told to contribute to
the Mishkan they do so. The import of the midrash is ironic: the people seem to
be so eager for a palpable representation of Hashem's presence that they will
readily give to any project, legitimate or illegitimate, done for that
However the comparison between the giving to the golden calf and to the
Mishkan may be seen in a different light: the latter serves to atone for the
former. In order to support this way of understanding the relationship between
the two projects we may note that there is significant differences between the
way in which the people express their desire for the golden calf and for the
Mishkan. The building of the golden calf is a one-man affair, done by Aharon
alone. The people, while they feel an overwhelming need to have this physical
symbol, are confined to a one-time gift of golden earrings. The Torah does not
stress the quantity of the gift, its encompassing the entire social spectrum, or
the outpouring of volunteer spirit that motivates it, as our parasha does. This
seems to suggest that one of the differences between the golden calf and the
Mishkan is that the power of the golden calf lies entirely in the FORM itself,
whereas the power of the Mishkan is rooted - at least partially - in the PROCESS
by means of which it is constructed. Only a sanctuary produced, in response to
Hashem's express command, by the willing participation of the entire people can
serve as a vehicle for the divine Presence (see Study Question
We may further suggest that the profundity of the people's desire to
contribute to the Mishkan may stem, in part, from their sense of guilt and shame
at having worshipped the golden calf. After having experienced the removal of
Hashem's Presence from their encampment, they are eager to atone for their sin
and for Hashem to show His reconciliation with them by restoring His Presence.
The universality and eagerness of their participation in the construction
reflects the depth of their shame and of their need for atonement.
The overwhelming urges and anxieties revealed in the golden calf episode,
even if some of them stem from worthwhile desires, can only lead to the
disintegration of the society and of the spiritual personality. The Mishkan
serves as atonement for the golden calf, inasmuch as it reflects the proper
balance, within the society as well as the personality, between admirable
desires and a controlling will capable of channeling these desires in positive
1. Go through
Vayakhel and Pekudei, and list the professions which were employed for the
construction of the Mishkan. Are these professions enough to ensure the
functioning of society?
a. Mendelssohn supports his contention that the kinds of work described
in our parasha represent all work essential for the functioning of society by
referring to a statement by Chazal that (in Mendelssohn's words): "All work that
was not in the Mishkan is not considered work." The source for this statement is
Bava Kama 2a. See Tosafot s.v. Hachi Garsinan - which girsa is Mendelssohn
following? Would the other girsa substantially affect Mendelssohn's conclusions?
b. The gemara there discusses the difference between avot and toladot.
How might the concept of av-tolada support Mendelssohn's theory?
c. Look at the list of 39 melakhot in Mishna Shabbat 7:2 and divide it
into sections. What is the principle governing the division of these melakhot,
and how may this help us to support Mendelssohn's idea?
2. What points
in our discussion of the impact of the golden calf episode would need to be
changed if we accept Rashi's account of the chronology of the golden calf and
the Mishkan construction?
3. Find support
in the golden calf episode (32:1-6) for each of R. Yehuda HaLevi's and Ramban's
claims: (1) that the golden calf was a substitute for Moshe, (2) that it was not
a substitute for Hashem. In what sense can the golden calf serve as a substitute
4. In what
other biblical story is the term "letzachek" used to show the complete spiritual
disintegration of a personality?
midrashim and commentators understand the term in that story?
Can the term be
interpreted in that story in light of the way we understood it
5. The idea
that worship of God and approaching His Presence demands full control of one's
faculties and full awareness of boundaries and proprieties may be demonstrated
from the story of Nadav and Avihu and its immediate aftermath.
Prove from the
story of Matan Torah that the advent of the divine Presence requires careful
observance of boundaries.
Is the eating
and drinking described in 24:11 similar to or different from the eating and
drinking associated with the golden calf? How do you know? (Note the dispute
regarding the meaning of "lo shalakh yado" and the midrash identifying the
"na'arei Benei Yisrael" as Nadav and Avihu).
6. The idea
that there is a difference between the power attributed to the golden calf and
the way in which the Mishkan derives its meaning and sanctity may be related to
the blessing which Moshe confers upon the people upon completion of the
construction work (39:43), as cited by the Midrash Tanchuma (#11): "May it be
His will that the Shekhina may dwell on the work of your hands". How?