5767 - #19


While the command to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, precedes the story of the Golden Calf in the Torah text, there is actually a strong view within the commentators that perceives the very idea of the Mishkan as being inherently a response to this sin. What we find is, in fact, a powerful disagreement amongst the commentators1 regarding the relationship between the Mishkan and this sin. Some commentators understand the concept of the Mishkan as being separate from the sin, occupying its own important, independent place and role within the structure of Torah. The Mishkan is, in fact, according to Ramban, Introduction to Shemot and Commentary to Shemot 25:1, the very fulfillment of the Sinai ideal. Other commentators, however, see the mishkan solely as a response to the sin. The sin of the Golden Calf reflected inherent weaknesses in the nation; the Mishkan was introduced as the means by which to correct these weaknesses or, at least, to direct these weaknesses in a manner that would lessen their potential for spiritual harm. Fundamentally, within this disagreement, we encounter two major motivations for human behaviour. Do we act in furtherance of an ideal, motivated by an aspiration for a greater good? Or do we act in avoidance of evil, motivated by a desire to avoid greater harm?    

            At issue may be our very understanding of human nature and its place in the structure of the Torah ideal. Do we perceive all aspects of the human being -- all the drives, passions and desires within a person – as having a place in the Torah ideal of humanity, in general, and the person in particular? Or do we perceive some parts of human nature as basically obstacles that we must overcome – that cannot be ignored but must be fulfilled in the least harmful manner -- on the path to the Torah ideal? The command to build the Mishkan resonated with the people;2 how do we view their actions and the underlying human motivations that made them so involved in the performance of this mitzvah? Do we see this motivation as inherently positive and the behaviour of the people as giving reason to why God created the human being in this manner with all the facets of human nature? Do we see mitzvah and human nature joining always in the ideal? Or do we see this behaviour as simply the best way to express this motivation so that this drive does not lead us astray and that human nature does not interfere with the overall path of Torah? Do we see mitzvah and human nature, in such cases, joining solely to protect against further harm from human nature? The view, though, that the Mishkan was a response to the Golden Calf does not necessarily yield the result that human nature has no ideal value. It may be that the only way to fully understand the value of human nature is by viewing its improper manifestation for only thereby we can understand the value of its proper manifestation.  

            In explaining why the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, does not wear gold garments when entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, T.B. Rosh Hashanah 26a states ein ketaiger na’aseh saneiger, the accuser cannot become the defender. The implication of this gemara would seem to be that the underlying drive that led to the sin of the Golden Calf cannot be seen, in the true realm of the ideal, as positive. Yet gold is found throughout the Mishkan and, indeed, the clothes that the Kohain Gadol wears for the Yom Kippur service outside of the Holy of Holies are of gold? Torah Shelaima, Shemot 25:3, note 38 quotes Tanchuma 8 that explains that the gold of the Mishkan was to serve as an atonement for the gold of the Golden Calf. This would seem to imply that the drive that led to the giving of the gold towards the Golden Calf can be corrected and that this drive can be harnessed and used for a positive end such as the building of the Mishkan. Is this not, though, ketaiger na’aseh saneiger, the accuser becoming the defender? One possible way of reconciling these two Rabbinic sources is by stating that the gemara in Rosh Hashanah is describing the ideal while the Tanchuma is describing the general, practical necessity. This drive exists. In the ideal, the realm of the Holy of Holies, the ideal is to separate from this drive. However, we do not live in the ideal and, as such, in our everyday existence we must find a manner by which to apply this drive so that it is, at least, sublimated and does not interfere with the path to the ideal. Gold thus finds its place outside the Holy of Holies. This view would seem to reflect the understanding of those who do not see the Mishkan as reflecting the ideal. How, though, would commentators such as the Ramban explain the divergent views of these two sources? How even would they understand the very idea that the construction of the Mishkan was an atonement for the Golden Calf?

         T.J. Shekalim 1:1 presents various examples of how the drives within the Jewish nation led, in certain circumstances to evil while, in other circumstances, to good. One example mentioned is this one: that they brought gold for the Golden Calf and they brought gold for the Mishkan. Rav Yitzchak Hutner3 explains this is the general nature of what we may term the conflict of good and evil. The source for our actions is basically the same; the challenge of achieving good or evil emerges in the manifestation of our drive. The difference between good and evil is thus not inherent in one’s being but is determined by how one manifests one’s being. The Jews were no different in giving to the Golden Calf than in giving to the Mishkan; only the object of their drive was different. This still, of course, has value but it is not the ideal. There is value that there be gold in the Mishkan but still this ketaiger cannot be a saneiger. There is though a realm where the ketaiger can be a saneiger and this, Rav Hutner contends, is the realm of Purim. It is not enough that a drive simply manifest itself in the good. Good and evil must be at opposite ends of a see-saw. When good triumphs, evil must inherently fall. A drive manifested for the good must be inherently different than a drive manifested for evil. The drive that led to the giving of gold for the Mishkan, ideally, had to be inherently different than the drive that led to the giving of gold for the Calf. The Yerushalmi is informing us that this, sadly, was not the case; the drive thus is still tainted. To reach the ideal whereby human nature merges with mitzvah it is not enough that human nature be used for the good but that it be good, inherently different than when manifested in evil. This is the essence of the Purim lesson. This is also the ideal of the Mishkan.

. 4.


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, further, Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, Terumah, Binyan HaMikdash – Mitzvah L’Dorot?.     

2 See Shemot 36:5-7.

3 As presented in Rabbi Pinchus Stolper, Purim in a New Light, an adaptation of Rav Hutner’s Pachad Yitzchak on Purim.

Nishma, 2007.


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