The Argument over the Path to Faith and its Expressions in the Parashiot of the Mishkan

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur


Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi



We concluded the shiur on parashat Teruma with the suggestion that the laws of the Mishkan were conveyed to Moshe when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the (first) tablets, as a gesture of compromise. Moshe had  objected to God's decree that an angel would replace the direct and immediate Divine Providence that had accompanied Am Yisrael until this point, and the laws of the Mishkan represented a compromise between the two positions.


Based on this assumption, we shall now address three questions which we raised in last week's parasha concerning the final five parashiot of Sefer Shemot:


1.   The extensive detail concerning the building materials, manner of construction of the vessels, and their dimensions. 

2.   The location of the account of the sin of the golden calf in the midst of the parashiot about the Mishkan. 

3.   The lengthy repetition of details in the description of the actual building, in Vayakhel and Pekudei.


The Purpose of the Detailed Description


The laws of the Mishkan are characterized by the minute detail of the description of the manner of construction, the materials used, the dimensions of the vessels and their purpose – to the point where we cannot but wonder at the need for such meticulous attention to these fine points. The last parasha in which we encountered a specification of dimensions and building materials was parashat Noach, in the command to Noach to build the ark. However, while the precision in that instance may be explained as arising from the ark's intended function to protect its inhabitants from the flood,[1] when it comes to the Mishkan, it would seem that the dimensions or form of the structure would in no way affect the accommodation of the Divine Presence, which is not dependent on any natural elements.


The argument between God and Moshe concerning the proper guidance of Am Yisrael to lead them to wholehearted faith in God is a theme that can help us understand the need for such detail in the laws of the Mishkan. We recall that Moshe, starting at the burning bush, emphasizes the need to provide the people with visual proof of God's presence. Moshe believes that Divine service requires tangible means; it cannot, at this early stage, be based on intellectual recognition alone. God wants to speed up the transition to an abstract mode of Divine service based upon the power of mind. God's acquiescence to Moshe's request, that His Presence rest constantly in the midst of the camp, puts a halt on this process that He had sought – perhaps even cancelling it altogether – in favor of Moshe's approach.


The agency of a tangible intermediary in Divine service poses two dangers. One is that the means can become the end – "We shall make a name for ourselves." The other is the possibility of being carried away in religious ecstasy, to the point where a person, acting out of religious motives, ends up severing himself from the true purpose of Divine service.[2] The delineation in meticulous detail of the laws of building the Mishkan is aimed at avoiding both pitfalls.


The means become an end when a person views the means, inter alia, as a way of expressing himself, his abilities, and the manner in which the means influences him. The very specific laws here preclude any such possibility: every act is dictated in advance, and the finished product must precisely match the instructions.


Likewise, the detailed laws serve to direct the awe and wonder at this means to its Source – to God Who planned the Mishkan in all its impressive precision. Ecstasy is the result of an absence of boundaries; it reflects an emotional transport led by the heart, ignoring – or not conscious of – the environment and its accepted norms. The precise specifications concerning the entire process of the Divine service in the Mishkan leave no room for a person to sever himself from the environment. The religious experience of Divine service in the Sanctuary is in fact dependent on one being absolutely connected to the relevant laws and consciously aware of their Divine Source.


Another characteristic of the laws of the Mishkan and its sacrificial service is the opaqueness of their purpose. The laws of the Mishkan come with no accompanying theoretical explanation, and the reasons for the sacrifices are not given in the text. This opaqueness, on one hand, and the multiplicity of detail, on the other, reinforce the sense of man's subservience to the Divine command. Through his actions he expresses acknowledgement of God's good laws and His judgments "which a person shall perform, and live by them" – even when their reason is concealed from him.


Thus, the laws of the Mishkan represent, on the one hand, a forgoing of the ideal of Divine service through the power of thought and speech, but on the other hand, they do not allow man to become seduced by the means; they remind him, at every stage of his interaction, what the purpose of the Mishkan service is. The laws of the Mishkan, in all their detail, allow a person to express his subservience to God in his every religious act, while simultaneously preventing him from becoming fixated with the aspects of his worship as a value in their own right.



The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Significance of its Location in the Text


The golden calf validates the Divine concern that Am Yisrael would become addicted to a tangible form of worship; a temporary absence causes them to seek an alternative that was not part of the pure Divine service which had been commanded to them at Mount Sinai and in the laws accompanying that Revelation. In Sefer Ha-kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi writes:


The people did not pay so much attention to the law as to a tangible image in which they believed. Benei Yisrael had been promised that something visible would descend on them from God which they could follow, as they followed the pillars of cloud and fire when they departed from Egypt. This they pointed out, and turned to it, praising it, and worshipping God in its presence. Thus they also turned towards the cloud which hovered over Moshe while God spoke with him; they remained standing and adoring God in its presence. Now when the people had heard the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, and Moshe had ascended the mountain in order to receive the inscribed tablets which he was to bring down to them and then to make an ark which was to be the point towards which they should direct their gaze during their devotions, they waited for his return, clad in the same clothes in which they had witnessed the drama on Sinai – without removing their jewels or changing their clothes, remaining just as he left them, expecting every moment to see him return. He, however, tarried forty days, although he had not taken provisions, having only left them with the intention of returning the same day. An evil spirit overpowered a portion of the people, and they began to divide into parties and factions. Many views and opinions were expressed, until at last some decided to do like the other nations, and seek an object in which they could have faith. This was in no way meant to prejudice the supremacy of Him who had brought them out of Egypt. On the contrary, they sought only some tangible object to which they could direct themselves when relating the wonders of God… (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi, Sefer Ha-kuzari, 1:97)


On the other hand, Moshe's insistence that the nation was not yet ready for a completely abstract mode of faith and worship is likewise borne out by the people's response to a situation devoid of any tangible elements:


When the people saw that Moshe tarried to come down from the mountain, the people gathered to Aharon and said to him, “Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him." (Shemot 32:1)


The nation's response to Moshe's prolonged absence reveals their dependence and lack of confidence. They are like a young child who is not yet weaned of his complete dependence on his parents and experiences separation anxiety whenever the people familiar to him are not nearby. Would it be possible to wean the people off a tangible mode of leadership at this stage, as they face the challenges of the wilderness, not yet having reached the permanent habitation that is meant to give them a sense of security?


God's response to the sin of the golden calf is not long in coming. He announces the reinstatement of the mode of leadership represented by the angel, thereby nullifying the gesture of the Mishkan:


God spoke to Moshe: “Depart, go up from here – you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt – to the land which I promised to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Ya’akov, saying, ‘To your descendants I shall give it.’ And I shall send an angel before you, and I shall drive out the Cna’ani, the Emori, and the Chitti and the Prizzi, the Chivvi and the Yevusi – into a land flowing with milk and honey; for I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people – lest I consume you on the way." (Shemot 33:1-3)


Ramban comments:


After this God once again tells Moshe (verse 1), “Go up from here, you and the people” – as if to say that the plague will not erase their sin such that I might dwell in their midst… Thus Am Yisrael suffer two punishments: one is that God's Presence will not dwell in their midst; the second is that He will send an angel before Moshe, to drive out the nations – but after they inherit the land, there is no promise of even an angel to help them. This is implied in the specification, “on the way.” Concerning all of this it is written (verse 4), “And the people heard this evil thing and they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments” – like mourners. (Ramban, 33:1)


What this implies, then, is a cancellation of God's concession to having the Mishkan built. God announces that His Presence will be removed from the midst of the camp, with a return to the original intention that God's guidance of the people will be devoid of any tangible expression. At the first stage of the conquest of the land they will be accompanied by an angel, but afterwards the nation will have to become accustomed to faith in God with no intermediary. They will lead a completely natural life.


As we continue to read the rest of the parashiot in Sefer Shemot and Vayikra, we see that the Divine Presence does indeed reside in the Mishkan – meaning that this second decree concerning the angel is likewise cancelled. What leads to this cancellation? How does Moshe have the courage to plead with God in this regard, after seeing with his own eyes the disastrous results of the path which he himself upholds?


In between the decree of the angel and the parashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei, we must seek what took place between God and Moshe after God effectively announces the end of the Mishkan project; how is this decree eventually annulled?


Verses 12-23 describe a further argument between God and Moshe concerning the proper mode of leadership of the nation. Moshe's request may be viewed as comprising three separate items, and we will later see how each item receives a precise response, leading us to an understanding of what happens to the decree concerning the Mishkan.


1.   Moshe clarifies his own status in light of the decree of the angel: 

Moshe said to God: “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people’ – but You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’ And now, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You, that I may find favor in Your sight; and see that this nation is Your people." (33:12-13)


Malbim explains:


When Moshe says, “You say to me, ‘Bring up this people,'” he means – without making the Mishkan, because You will not dwell in their midst, just that I should bring them up [to the land] by means of the angel. “But You have not made known whom You will send with me” – meaning, You have not made known whom You will send for the purposes of my prophecy: will my prophecy, too, be through an angel, through a 'glass that is not clear,' like the rest of the prophets, or not? For You have said only, “I shall send an angel before you, and I shall drive out the Cna'ani…” – but You have not explained whether the angel will accompany me, too, for my purposes concerning prophecy – i.e., that my prophecy will be through him."


God therefore answers:


He said, “My countenance shall go with you, and I shall give you (lakh – singular) rest."




God tells Moshe that with regard to his prophecy, even now it will not be through an angel or any intermediary, but rather only “mouth to mouth”… In this matter My countenance will go, I Myself, not through an angel or intermediary. The angel will precede [the nation] only in the matter of inheriting the land.


2.   Moshe does not accept the distinction between the mode of guidance of him personally and the mode of guidance of the nation as a whole. He threatens to end his leadership if God's countenance will not accompany the entire nation: 

And he said to God: “If Your countenance will not journey [with us], do not take us up from here. For in what way shall it be known, then, that I have found favor in Your sight – I and Your people? Is it not in Your journeying with us that I and Your people are differentiated from everyone upon the face of the earth?" (33:15-16) 


This suggests that Moshe says, “If Your countenance will not accompany the entire nation also in the matter of inheritance of the land and the leadership of the nation, then do not bring us up from here – for even if I myself have found favor in Your sight in the matter of prophecy, I want the nation, too, to find favor in Your sight, and that You will lead them Yourself, with no intermediary." 

To this God responds: 

"Also this thing which you have spoken shall I do, for you have found favor in My eyes and I know you (singular) by name." 

3.   God's answer does not satisfy Moshe, for his question had been, "In what way shall it be known, then, that I have found favor in Your sight – I and Your people?", while God's response refers to Moshe alone finding favor. 

He therefore goes on to ask, "Show me, I pray You, Your glory." Here he seeks to test God's readiness to have His Presence dwell amongst Israel. God's answer limits His revelation to Moshe alone, and only when he is high on the cliff, far removed from the eyes of the nation. 

It seems, then, Moshe's request is not fulfilled. At the end of God's revelation to him, he pleads once again::


He said, “I pray You, if I have found favor in Your eyes, Lord, let the Lord, I pray You, journey in our midst, for it is a stiff-necked people, and forgive our iniquity and our sin and our transgression.” (Shemot 34:9)




Even though God had said to him, “Also this thing which you have spoken shall I do,” He had not promised that He would do it right away, and in addition, Moshe had asked then only that God's countenance – meaning, His Divine Providence – would journey with them, but now he asks that the Name Ado-nay will accompany them, the Name indicating the attribute of Malkhut, which is His glorious Presence, and that He would command that the Mishkan be built and that He would reside in their midst. For this had not yet been promised.


God's response to Moshe's last supplication includes the promise of a covenant, but there seems to be no clear, unequivocal answer concerning his request that the Divine Presence reside in the Mishkan. When Moshe comes down from the mountain, he does not know whether God will cause His Presence to rest in the Mishkan, amongst the nation:


And it was, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of testimony in Moshe's hand when he came down from the mountain, that Moshe did not know that the skin of his face shone as He spoke with him. (Shemot 34:29)


Moshe is not aware of the Divine Presence that has descended upon him, while the people see that his face shines but do not understand the significance of this phenomenon. It is with this lack of knowledge and lack of understanding that the people commence the building of the Mishkan.

Detail in the Execution of the Mishkan in Parashiot Vayakhel and Pekudei[3]


The parashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei, which appear to be a superfluous repetition of all the details of the command to build the Mishkan, turn into a story of suspense, at the center of which is the question of whether God will cause His Presence to rest on the Mishkan. Moshe received no clear answer concerning the command to build. However, in contrast to the punishment of the spies – where the people are forbidden to pursue the journey to Eretz Yisrael after expressing doubts – there is no prohibition on building the Mishkan after the sin of the golden calf. Put to the test now is the degree to which the people will commit themselves to this tremendous construction project, in terms of manpower and resources, which represents a potential for the Divine Presence to dwell in their midst – but which may turn out, at the end, to have been in vain.


The parashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei describe the universal enthusiasm, of all sections of the nation, who all clamor to be part of the project – some by contributing materials, others by offering their skills:


And they came – every person whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit made him willing, and they brought God's offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. And they came, men and women alike, all willing of heart, bringing nose rings and earrings and rings and bracelets and all jewelry of gold, and every person who had offered an offering of gold to God. And every person who had in his possession blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats' hair, and red skins of rams, and tachash skins, brought them. Everyone who offered an offering of silver and brass brought God's offering, and everyone who possessed shittim wood, for any of the work of the service, brought it. And all the women who had wisdom of heart spun with their hands, and brought that which they had spun – of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them with wisdom spun goats' hair. And the princes brought shoham stones and the stones for setting in the efod and for the breastplate; and the spice and the oil for anointing and for the incense of spices. Benei Yisrael brought as a willing offering to God - every man and woman whose heart prompted them to bring for all of the work which God had commanded to be done, by the hand of Moshe. (Shemot 35:21-29)


And Betzalel and Aholiav and every wise-hearted man to whom God had given wisdom and understanding, to know how to perform all the manner of work for the service of the Sanctuary, did according to all that God had commanded. And Moshe called Betzalel and Aholiav and every wise-hearted man in whose heart God had given wisdom – everyone whose heart stirred him up – to come forward to the work, to perform it. And they took from before Moshe all of the contribution which Benei Yisrael had brought for the work of the service of the Sanctuary, with which to do it; and they were still bringing him freewill offerings each morning. And all the wise men who were carrying out all of the work of the Sanctuary, came from the work which he did… (Shemot 36:1-4)


The outpouring of enthusiasm is such that at some stage the torrent of contributions must be halted:


… and they said to Moshe, saying, The people are bringing much more than enough for the service of the work which God has commanded to do. And Moshe gave the command, and a proclamation was made throughout the camp, saying: “Let neither man nor women do any more work for the offering of the Sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing. But the material which they had was sufficient for all of the work needing to be done, and beyond. (Shemot 36:5-7)


From here the parashiot go on to describe the precision with which the vessels of the Mishkan were built, all in accordance with the command in parashiot Teruma and Tetzaveh. The refrain of parashat Pekudei is the confirmation, "as God had commanded Moshe," concluding every description of the completion of some vessel of the Mishkan or some article of the priestly clothing. The repeated emphasis gives eloquent expression to the tension of the people and their understanding that in order to increase the chances that God will indeed choose to bring His Presence to rest in the Mishkan, everything must be done with great precision and in complete, absolute subservience to God's instructions.


God's first revelation in the process of the construction is at the end of the preparation of the vessels and the structure of the Mishkan. In contrast to the original command, where Moshe was required to convey the command to Benei Yisrael, here the command is addressed to Moshe alone. The description of the execution of the command, following God's revelation, likewise focuses on Moshe, and here too each of his actions is summed up with the words, "He did/arranged/placed… as God had commanded Moshe." The optimism aroused by God's revelation is still reserved, since the degree to which Am Yisrael will be party to the revelation of God's Presence is still a mystery.


At the height of the suspense, the Mishkan is standing, the vessels are ready in their places, Aharon's sons are dressed in the priestly garments and reviewing the laws of the Mishkan service, which they have practiced over the eight days of inauguration. Everyone is waiting with anticipation to see the answer to the question: "If I have found favor in Your eyes – I and Your people," and whether God will journey amongst the people.


And the answer arrives:


The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God's glory filled the Mishkan. And Moshe could not come into the Tent of Meeting for the cloud rested atop it, and God's glory filled the Mishkan. (Shemot 40:34-35)


The continuation of this climactic moment is recorded in parashat Shemini:


A fire emerged from before God and it consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fats, and all of the people saw it, and they shouted, and fell upon their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)


The tremendous relief occasioned by the revelation of God's Presence serves to explain the extent of the sin of Nadav and Avihu, who had not internalized the lesson of the sin of the golden calf. They did not recognize the extent of the gesture and the opportunity afforded them by God to repent for the sin through absolute precision in carrying out the details of God's command. They dared to sacrifice "a strange fire which He had not commanded them." Aharon, more than anyone else, had yearned for the Divine Presence to appear, thereby expressing forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. He truly understands the extent of what his sons have done, and therefore "And Aharon was silent."


Aharon's part in the sin of the golden calf will be the subject of next week's shiur.



Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] Ramban explains that even precise adherence to the instructions concerning the ark could not naturally have provided the necessary protection for Noach and his family, and that had it not been for God's intervention, they too would have died in the flood. The details of God's command here were meant to ensure natural protection: "'Of all flesh…' – Obviously, there are exceedingly many creatures: some of them are very large, such as the elephant and buffalo and the like, and the creeping things that swarm upon the earth are very many. Likewise the birds of the heavens include innumerable different types… And now he would have to bring some of each of them, that they might reproduce and continue their kind. If we add to all of this the food needed for all of these, for an entire year, it becomes clear that this ark could not possibly contain everything, nor even could ten arks. It was a miraculous vessel, where a little contained much. One might suggest, then, that there was no need to build the ark so big; Noach could have built a small ark, and simply relied on the miracle that God was going to have to perform anyway. But God chose to command that he build a large ark, in order that the people of his generation would see it, and question him about it, and talk about it and about the Flood, and about the animals and creatures and birds gathered into it, and perhaps they would repent. Furthermore, the ark was built on a large scale – even without the miracle – because this is the manner of all miracles in the Torah, or in the Prophets – that man does whatever he is capable of doing, and the rest is in the hands of Heaven." (Ramban, Bereishit 6:19)

[2]  I deliberately refrain here from noting any concrete contemporary examples of this phenomenon for fear of damaging the wholehearted faith of anyone with positive motivation. However, everyone is able to bring to mind examples of apparent Divine worship, where the act or experience itself becomes the goal, while the real purpose is forgotten in the surrounding ecstasy.

[3]  The idea that I will set forth here I heard from my brother-in-law, Rabbi Itai Elitzur, who wrote it in an article entitled, "The Cloud Covered the Tent of Meeting and God's Glory Filled the Mishkan" [Hebrew], Ha-Ma'ayan 39, 3 (5759), pp. 39-44. Our explanation here will be based on his ideas.