With the conclusion of last week’s parsha, the story of the exodus from Egypt and the laws they received soon afterwards at Har Sinai is complete; in the last five parshiyot of the Book of Shemot, the Torah turns its attention to the building of the mishkan. However, right in the middle of these building festivities is the tragic story of the egel hazahav; placed between the first two parshiyot of Terumah and TeTzaveh and the final two of the book, Va’Yaqel and Pekudei. Chronologically, the egel hazahav episode occurs before the command to build the mishkan which brings some commentators to believe that the mishkan was actually a less-than-ideal situation, offered only because Bnei Yisrael proved they couldn’t hack serving an intangible God. And the reason it’s placed after the mishkan’s initial command and subsequent descriptions is perhaps because although originally given as an immediate response to that generation’s weaknesses, God wanted to ensure that forever more, the mishkan, and the later beit hamikdash, became a symbol of ideal service to God and our connecting to Him. A refutation to this approach is found in the words of Az Yashir, when, at the height of their connection to God and their recognition of His role in their lives, Bnei Yisrael sang out,
“You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, Lord, the sanctuary, Lord, which Your hands established” (Shemot 15; 17)
Already from the time of Yam Suf (way before the sin of the egel hazahav), the idea of a tangible sanctuary was imagined and yearned for in order to more fully reach God.
With this and other refutations to the previous proposal in mind, there are many classical commentaries who explain that because ‘there is no before or after in the Torah’, i.e. no strict necessity to adhere to chronological veracity, God specifically recorded the episode of the egel hazahav to teach us a lesson more significant than a factual historical report – and certainly more important than worrying about whether the mishkan was a response to the iniquitous egel. One theory is that in placing the egel event directly in the middle of the mishkan parshiyot, God was demonstrating that the forgiveness bestowed for the horrendous sin was absolute: the almost exact repetition in Va’Yaqel and Pekudei of the mishkan, its vessels and the Kohain clothing previously listed in Terumah and TeTzaveh signifies that nothing has changed – Bnei Yisrael can have their mishkan, as planned, even after the ‘slight hiccup’ of the egel hazav. This is the power of God’s forgiveness; this is the measure of His love for His children. However, this approach is also difficult to accept for although the last two parshiyot are almost identical to the first two, nonetheless the former describe what and how to build the mishkan while the latter describe the actual building. If the message was truly to demonstrate God’s unchanged attitude towards His people and their mishkan, perhaps it should have instead repeated the list just as it appeared in the previous parshiyot, therein accurately portraying the unaltered command?
So the question still remains: why would God specifically choose to record the event of the egel hazav right in the middle of the four mishkan parshiyot?
The strategic placement of the egel hazahav episode allows for a highlighted juxtaposition of the two ‘collections’ – for the mishkan and for the egel. And it is from this comparison that an integral lessoned is learned not only regarding the mishkan specifically but concerning our service to God in general.
The command for collecting the gold and other materials for the mishkan is as follows:
“Tell Bnei Yisrael to take for Me terumah; from all people who are willing to donate [lit: of a giving heart] you should take My terumah” (25; 2)
And the order for the collection of gold for the egel:
“And Aharon said to them: detach golden rings that are in your wives’, sons’ and daughters’ ears and bring them to me’ (32; 2)
Understanding the command by the mishkan: the term ‘terumah’ is commonly mistranslated as ‘a donation’ (probably because it is most often connected with the verb ‘give’) but the word really means ‘an elevated’ part of a larger product; from the verb ‘harim’, which means to lift or raise up. Interestingly, this terumah was specifically to be ‘taken’ from the people, yet from people who willingly donated it. And finally, this terumah was to be taken for God. So, putting this all together, the entire command is understood as: Bnei Yisrael must willingly take from themselves an elevated product of gold, etc. for God.
In contrast, the collection for the idolatrous egel was to detach (and as R. Hirsch points out this word also has the connotation of a reluctant detachment from) gold from wherever and upon whomever they could find it (given willingly or not) and bring it to Aharon. It is not ‘taken from them’, in the form of an ‘elevated’ contribution, nor given to God. The contrast is powerful; the message even greater.
The collection of material for the mishkan was truly what would define the structure’s significance: just as the material was directed specifically towards God, given under the context and understanding of an elevated terumah and taken from each willing individual, so too, the true purpose of the mishkan. It was to serve as a pure reflection of Bnei Yisrael’s voluntarily desired, personal, and elevated dedication to God and His laws; far beyond the gold, silver, etc. that went into building the mishkan, was the deeply directed yearning for the Divine relationship that provided these materials.
And this heightened awareness is so integrally applied to our daily lives; for example amongst countless examples, when we go to shul to daven. How common is it to approach this ‘inconvenience’ with reluctance, reading ‘mindlessly’ from the siddur until it is all over, bringing yourself to perform this service ‘for’ the community to which you belong? The brilliant juxtaposition of mishkan and the egel teaches us that we must yearn for this opportunity to dedicate ourselves to God, taking deeply from ourselves and giving an ‘elevated’ prayer to God in order to better our relationship with Him. This is the service the mishkan required and this is the service that God truly demands from us.