The order of the Biblical parshiyot from Schemot 25 through the end of that book presents a particular chronological and thematic challenge. In the parshiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh (chs. 25-30), G”d tells Moshe Rabbenu to command the Israelites to make a Mishkan, that G”d may reside in the Israelites’ midst. Then, in the beginning of Ki Tissa, the command is relayed to the people, and immediately afterwards the Torah reports the sin of the Golden Calf. Finally, in Vayaqhel and Piqudei(chs. 35-40), the work is carried out and brought to a successful completion.
This gives rise to a chronological question and a difficult philosophical corollary. Since Moshe ascended Mount Sinai when G”d spoke the Ten Utterances (erroneously known as Ten Commandments), and remained there for forty days, only coming down after the Golden Calf was celebrated, Shemot 31 could not have come before ch. 32! Since beginning with the day when Moshe had come down from the mountain, there were more pressing issues on the agenda, namely, praying and arguing for the Israelites’ forgiveness, therefore, ch. 31 was likely only relayed after Moshe finally came down once again from the mountain, with a second set of Tablets of the Covenant, and the message that the Israelites had been forgiven.
[That was one hundred and twenty days after the Revelation at Sinai (three times 40 days), which happens to be on the 10th of Tishrei, in other words, on Yom Kippur. According to some sources, it is that year’s message of forgiveness that is the historical event that led to the mitzva of Yom Kippur, to begin with.]
The answer to our chronological question is fairly obvious: the Torah does not always follow a chronological order, but a thematic structure. Which, of course, begs the corollary question: Why were we commanded to build a Mishkan, and what does the a-chronological order of the texts dealing with the Mishkan teach us about its raison d’être?
Rashi (31:18) remarks on the chronological difficulty (quoting Midrash Tanchuma ad loc.):
|And He gave Moshe [the two Tablets of Testimony] etc. – The Torah is not chronologically ordered. The story of the [Golden] Calf happened many days before the commandment [to Moshe?] of the work of the Mishkan, for the tablets were broken on the seventeenth of Tamuz, and G”d finally forgave the Israelites on Yom Kippur, and on the following day they began to donate for the Mishkan, which was erected on the first day of Nissan.||
ויתן אל משה וגו’ – אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. מעשה העגל קודם לצווי מלאכת המשכן ימים רבים היה, שהרי בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות, וביום הכפורים נתרצה הקב”ה לישראל, ולמחרת התחילו בנדבת המשכן והוקם באחד בניסן:
Thus, Rashi implies that the commandment to build a Mishkan came as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. One may say that the sin of the Golden Calf showed how incapable our ancestors were, to function without a physical center of worship. It is hard enough to grasp the idea that G”d is wholly uncorporeal, it is even harder – especially for the generation of the Exodus, who had just left idolatrous Egypt – to serve Him without any sanctified place. So, as an antidote to a recurrence of the idolatrous Golden Calf worship, G”d commands them to build a sanctuary.
However, that conclusion is not warranted, for Rashi did not necessarily say that Moshe was only told on that Yom Kippur to command the Israelites,but rather that he transmitted the command on that day. However, G”d may have taught him the command three months earlier, before the sin with the Golden Calf. That would indeed explain why we have a chronological difficulty in the first place, why not teach ch. 32 (the sin with the Calf) before ch. 25 (the commandment to donate for the construction of the Mishkan)?
Whereas the Torah is usually very brief, it treats the theme of the construction of the Mishkan in great detail, which underscores its great importance. As numerous commentators have noted – Nachmanides on Shemot 25:1, for example -, there are a number of key words that hint at how the Mishkan is supposed to become a permanent Mount Sinai, where G”d continues to reveal Himself after the manner at Mount Sinai. Words like fire, smoke and the cloud (אש, עשן, ענן) link both stories linguistically.
For Nachmanides, the commandments concerning the Mishkan are entirely independent of the sin of the Golden Calf, though the Israelites’ success in building and inaugurating the Mishkan does show that they were forgiven and G”d returned in their midst. For Rashi, it is tempting to say that the main idea of the Mishkan is to repair the sin of the Golden Calf. According to Prof. Menachem Ben-Yashar of Bar Ilan, this is also the position of R’ Ovadya Seforno (though I did not find it in his commentary; hint: comments, please). R’ Gil Student blogged about some of the other understandings and symbolisms of the Mishkan. (Note that the Creation theme, which R’ Students blogs about, is already found in Rabbenu Ba’hya Ben Asher’s commentary, and is based on Midrashim.)
Accordingly, one might say that for Rashi, had our ancestors not sinned, there would have been no need for a tabernacle. Indeed, that is the position of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, who, in his commentary to Shemot 13:13:
Were it not for this redemption, it is almost certain that the firstborn would have had to devote himself entirely to the priestly function, and thus would be cut off from the family circle. This we do not ask of him, but rather desire that he be an integral part of the life of the family … for not in temples, but rather in homes will the mission and calling of Judaism be fulfilled completely.
R’ Menachem Leibtag, however, has a very different, very compelling take. The notion of Miqdash, of sanctified space, is too central in the Tanakh to consider it a mere act of repair, however important. It is not something that is meant to become passé, to become superfluous. Halakhists are clear, and the Jewish People has consistently validate, that we hope and pray for the day when the Beit haMiqdash will be rebuilt. There is really no disagreement between Rashi and Nachmanides, they speak of different aspects of the notion of sanctified space.
Had the nation not sinned with the Golden Calf, what would have happened? The people would have immediately left for the Holy Land, indeed, without any Mishkan. Why? Because they would soon after enter the Holy Land under Moshe’s leadership and miraculously conquer the land, with no need for physical war, very much like the campaign against the Egyptians that was wholly by the Hand of G”d. However, that doesn’t mean that they would not have had the privilege to sanctify space. They surely would have sanctify space, but that would immediately have been a very particular space, however, the place where the Patriarch Avraham elevated his son Yits’haq onto an alter, and where Ya’aqov dreamt of the ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Had the nation not sinned with the Golden Calf, no Mishkan would have been built, for they would right away built the Beit haMiqdash. It is on account of the twin sins of the Golden Calf and of the spies who slandered the Holy Land that the nation would only have an incomplete, portable Mishkan, for over four hundred years, until King David conquered Jerusalem and his son built the Beit haMiqdash on Mount Moriah. Meanwhile, they needed to repair their fault and bring G”d back into their midst, so they had to fulfil the commandment to built the Miqdash, by first building a Mishkan.
R’ Menachem Leibtag also remarks that it is a mistake to think that our ancestors conceived of the Mishkan/Miqdash as the dwelling of G”d. Not only does the prophet Yesha’yah prophesize (Yesha’yah 66:1): “Thus saith HASHEM: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool; where is the house that ye may build unto Me? And where is the place that may be My resting-place?,” but the very commandment to build a Miqdash, in Shemot, is very telling. The commandment is וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתֹוכָֽם׃ – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. Not “let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in it,” but “and I will dwell among them.” Building the sanctuary is all about inviting G”d into our lives, not only in the Temple, but outside of it, too. By creating the cultic center, the nation is to permeate all aspects of its life with G”d-awareness, and when it failed in doing so, G” rebuked them.
R’ Menachem Leibtag is one of the Tanakh masters of our day and age, and has a large number of excellent audio shiurim on YUTorah.org. Well worth listening to. I find they are great for downloading onto my phone, for listening while travelling.