"Behold, I Send an Angel Before You..."

  • Rav Tamir Granot
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.







This shiur is dedicated in memory of Nathan (Naftali Chaim ben Akiva) Wadler – whose yahrzeit is 29 Shevat.



"Behold, I Send an Angel Before You…"


By Rav Tamir Granot



Introduction and Notice:


Usually, in shiurim – and especially in this sort of format – it is customary to introduce some question or topic for discussion, and then to treat or answer it during the course of the shiur.


The present shiur is different in this respect, for the principal question that will be presented here is given no answer. It is a very difficult exegetical and theological problem. I believe that it does have an answer, but it is to be found elsewhere, and hopefully we will get around to it towards the end of Sefer Vayikra. In the present shiur we shall suffice with an analysis of processes, a review of different hypotheses, and the solution of some interim problems.


Part 1: The Promise of the "Angel"


Following the list of laws and judgments with which our parasha opens, God tells Moshe the following:


(20) "Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared.

(21) Beware of him and listen to him, do not rebel against him, for he shall not bear your sin, for My Name is within him.

(22) But if you will obey him well and do all that I say, then I shall be an enemy to your enemies and I shall bring suffering upon those who cause you suffering.

(23) For My angel will go before you and bring you to the Emorites and the Chittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Chivvites and the Jebusites, and I shall annihilate them."


The above verses deal with the fulfillment of the promise to bring Bnei Yisrael to the land ("The place which I have prepared"). But in and of itself, this promise sounds very peculiar: where were we told that God would dispatch an angel to bring the nation into the land? Where in the Torah do we hear that we must obey an angel? And - most importantly – these verses contradict all that we are going to read in the chapters to come, the crux of that message being that God Himself is going to dwell amidst the camp of Israel. In chapter 25 we read, "Let them make Me and Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst." If God Himself goes amidst the camp, what need is there for an angel? And why must Bnei Yisrael obey an angel, rather than God Himself?


Likewise, in the well-known verses from Sefer Bamidbar, we read: "And it was, when the Ark traveled, that Moshe said: Arise, O God, and let Your enemies be scattered…." Even prior to that we read, "The Ark of God's covenant traveled before them…" – in other words, God Himself – He Who is "seated between the keruvim" [1] – journeys before the camp of Israel; why, then, an angel?


It is not my intention to discuss the metaphysical aspect of these verses. Let us assume, for the purposes of the shiur, that there is some form of Divine guidance or spiritual reality which God empowers to act, and which is called an angel. The problem is, how does what we read here fit in with all that we read further on, about God leading Am Yisrael from within the camp, by means of His Divine Presence that dwells in the Mishkan?


Part 2: Is the Mishkan an Ideal?


In fact, the problem to which the "angel issue" gives rise is a far more comprehensive one, and we must ask what place the idea of the Mishkan occupies prior to chapter 25 of Sefer Shemot, where Moshe is directly commanded, as he stands atop Mount Sinai, to build the Mishkan.


The answer to this question consists of two parts: that which is left unsaid, and that which is said but contradicts, or clashes with, the idea of the Mishkan.


That which is not said:

a.                       The construction of the Mishkan is neither mentioned nor even hinted at anywhere in Sefer Shemot until chapter 25. In other words, in all the time leading up to, and including, the revelation at Sinai there is no indication that God is going to instruct that a Mishkan be built and promise that He will dwell in the midst of Israel. This omission pertains both to the practical aspect – i.e., the actual construction, and to the metaphysical aspect – i.e., the idea of the Divine Presence dwelling amongst Israel.


There are a number of places where we could have expected God to mention this; such as at the burning bush, where there is an exposition of general destiny and a definition of the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt, but no hint of the Divine Presence dwelling amongst Israel. Or, in chapter 6 (beginning of Parashat Va'era), where God again defines the purposes of the Exodus and says, "I shall take you out… and I shall deliver you… and I shall redeem you… and I shall take you to be My nation, and I shall be your God… and I shall bring you to the land…." There is certainly a hint here at the revelation at Sinai, where God takes Am Yisrael to be His nation and says, "I am the Lord your God…," just as at the burning bush He said, "When you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall worship God upon this mountain." There is also a declaration as to the fulfillment of the promise to the forefathers, that Bnei Yisrael will return to the land – again, as foretold at the burning bush: "I shall bring you up from the suffering of Egypt to a good and wide land, to a land flowing with milk and honey." But there is not a single word about God's Presence going amongst the nation, or the construction of a Sanctuary for Him.


Even in places where we find something said in this direction, the crux is missing:


"You have guided, in Your mercy, this nation that You have redeemed; You have led them, in Your strength, to Your holy dwelling…"

"Bring them and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place of Your dwelling that You have made; the Sanctuary, O God, that Your hands have prepared for You…"


Let us ignore, for the moment, the problem of the text using the past tense, here, for something that is still destined to happen, and examine the verses themselves. The "place of God's dwelling" is in the "mountain of His inheritance" (Jerusalem, obviously); only there will His Temple be built. There is no hint here at any prior "dwelling" prior to Am Yisrael reaching God's holy place.


The metaphysics that arises from all of the above is as follows:


God is found in His place – Mount Sinai (see, for example, 18:5 - "To the desert where he encamped, at the mountain of God"). There He is revealed to Moshe, and it is to there that Moshe is destined to lead them when they leave Egypt. This is the essence of Moshe's insistence, before Pharoah, that God's place is at Sinai, and this is the essence of the service of God at the foot of the mountain and the revelation there – as His place. The same message arises from God's explicit promise:


"I shall bear you upon eagles' wings and bring you to Me": "to Me," i.e., to Mount Sinai, which is My place.


The covenant – i.e., "I shall take you to be My nation, and I shall be your God" – is destined to be forged at God's place, at Sinai, and thereafter God will fulfill His promise to bring the nation to the land of Israel. Since God's place is at Sinai, there is no reason to expect that He will accompany Bnei Yisrael; He need only ensure that they somehow reach the land safely.


In the verses of the Song of the Sea and, less explicitly, elsewhere too, we find expression of the idea that God's place is in the land of Israel, and therefore God promised it to the forefathers – because it is His place. This is the simplest significance of Avraham being told to go to the land of Canaan, which is God's land; God brings Avraham to His place.


Let us ignore, for the moment, the tension that arises between these two ideas – on the one hand, God's place is at Mount Sinai; on the other – His place is in the land, in the "mountain of His inheritance." Let us gather what is common to them: Egypt is not God's place, although He has the power to act there. God comes to Egypt in order to redeem Israel. God's place is either at the place of His revelation – at Sinai, or in His land – Israel (Canaan). The Torah does not describe God as being omnipresent in the sense of existing in every place, or going to every place. Were this the case, there would certainly be no point in the revelation to Moshe taking place specifically and intentionally at Sinai: "When you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain."


b.                  Even after Sinai, when Moshe is invited to ascend the mountain, there is no hint that he is going to be commanded concerning the Mishkan: "Ascend the mountain to Me and be there, and I shall give you the Tablets of stone, and the teaching and the commandments…." No matter how we interpret them, the terms "teaching" (Torah) and "commandments" do not – at least on the literal level – refer to the Mishkan. This is something that is "given" to the nation. In a future shiur we will interpret these terms in a positive way. In any event, the omission of any mention of the Mishkan and of the promise that God will continue to dwell amongst the nation even when they leave Sinai, is glaring.


That which is said and which appears to contradict the idea of the Mishkan:

1.            the section about the angel – as explained above, an angel leads Israel, rather than God dwelling Himself amongst the camp.

2.            the section about the altar, which follows the Ten Commandments:


"God said to Moshe: So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael: You saw how I spoke with you from the heavens. (20) You shall not make gods of silver along with Me, nor shall you makes gods of gold for yourselves. (21) You shall make Me and earthen altar, and you shall sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings and your flocks and your cattle; in every place where I make My Name recognized, I shall come to you and I shall bless you. (22) And if you make Me an altar of stone, do not build them of hewn stone, for you will have waved your sword over it and desecrated it."


This is a parasha that presents a completely different perception of God's Presence and of His service than the one embodied in the Mishkan. It is possible to fashion an altar of earth or of unhewn stone; apparently, it is even possible to fashion many such altars, as many as we wish "in every place," and God promises that He will come and bless us in every place where we serve Him. There is not the slightest hint here to the copper altar which we will later be told is "God's altar," such that it is forbidden to slaughter a sacrifice in any other place (Vayikra 17). There is no indication either or the material from which the altar is to be made, nor of the idea of worship being restricted to one place. The metaphysics that arises from this is that God is not with us: we have seen that He is in the heavens, not on earth, therefore there is no place that is special; God chooses of His will the place where He will bless us, and it may be any place at all. Obviously, there is no mention of the connection between the altar and the house of God's service; in other words, the text is not speaking of the altar of the Mishkan.


To complete the picture, and to balance it, it must be stated that although there is no mention of the idea of the Mishkan, it would seem that there is more than a hint at the idea of a House of God in Eretz Yisrael. We refer especially to two sources:

a.            We have already mentioned above the verse from the Song of the Sea: "In the mountain of Your inheritance, the place of Your dwelling that You have made; the Sanctuary, O God, that Your hands have prepared for You."

b.            In a section towards the end of Parashat Mishpatim, dealing with the three pilgrim festivals (Shemot 23), we read: "They shall not appear before Me empty-handed," and also: "Three times in the year all of your males shall appear before the Lord God." Appearing before God obviously means that there is a place where it is possible to come to Him and to "be seen" by God, not just to offer a sacrifice. This explanation gains further support in light of the following well-known verse: "The first fruits of your land you shall bring to the House of the Lord your God." Here the text is speaking of a real House of God; this means that God has one "House" where He is to be served.


Both of the above sources, rather than helping to clarify the picture, actually create further difficulty, because the idea of the House of God is mentioned by the by, not as an explicit destiny but rather either in the framework of prayer (as in the Song of the Sea) or incidentally within the framework of a set of laws. Since the Torah is speaking of the three pilgrim festivals, it must mention presenting oneself before God and the bringing of first fruits to His House. But the crux of it – the idea of God's Presence moving from Mount Sinai to the midst of the Israelite camp – is still absent.


Part 3: The Other "Angel" Promise


Before seeking an answer to all of the questions that we have raised above, let us consider the second promise as to the guidance of the angel, located at the climax of the episode of the Golden Calf:


(Shemot 32:32) "Now, if You will forgive their sin – and if not, please erase me from Your book which You have written.

(33) Then God said to Moshe, Whoever has sinned against Me – him I shall erase from My book.

(34) And now, go down; lead the nation to where I spoke of to you; BEHOLD, MY ANGEL SHALL GO BEFORE YOU, and on the day of My visiting I shall visit their sin upon them.

(35) And God struck the nation for having made the calf, which Aharon made.

(33:1) And God said to Moshe: Go, arise from here, you and the nation that you brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land which I promised to Avraham, to Yitzhak and to Yaakov, saying – to your seed I shall give it.

(2) I SHALL SEND AN ANGEL BEFORE YOU, AND I SHALL DRIVE OUT the Canaanites, the Emorites, the Chittites, the Perizzites, the Chivvites and the Jebusites,

(3) To a land flowing with milk and honey, FOR I SHALL NOT GO UP IN YOUR MIDST - for you are a stiff-necked nation – lest I consume you on the way.

(4) When the nation heard this evil thing they mourned, and no man placed his ornaments upon himself.

(5) And God said to Moshe: Say to Bnei Yisrael, You are a stiff-necked nation; IN ONE INSTANT I SHALL GO UP IN YOUR MIDST AND ANNIHILATE YOU…."


Moshe prays for forgiveness, after God has already accepted his first prayer that the entire nation not be wiped out and after he has already taken action to slay the sinners through the agency of the Levites, so that God will not continue to plague the nation. His request here appears not to be accepted – at least not completely – for God tells him that He will erase the sinners from His Book. Moreover – and this is of significance for our discussion – God commands Moshe to set off on the journey, and repeats the promise that He will send an angel before the nation. But this time the reason that is given for the angel leading the nation rather than God Himself going up in the midst of the Israelite camp is because the nation is stiff-necked, and if God Himself were to dwell in its midst, His attribute of strict justice would strike them immediately.


This is very difficult to understand: in the section about the angel in Parashat Mishpatim, with which our discussion began, Bnei Yisrael are warned not to disobey the angel, because he will not bear their sin "Since My Name is within him." What, then, is the benefit of sending an angel while God Himself refrains from journeying in the midst of the camp of Israel? Even more perplexing is the fact that the promise of the angel appears here to be the tragic conclusion drawn from the Sin of the Golden Calf – but we cannot say this, for God promised that an angel would lead the nation long before the Sin of the Golden Calf was perpetuated. This being the case, what is it that Bnei Yisrael are regretting so deeply? Why are they mourning, if this is exactly what was promised to them in advance?


Let us briefly review what the commentators have to say about these problems. The Ibn Ezra explains:


"'I shall send before you an angel' – to help you; God does not refer here to the angel who is known to have God's Name within him" (Ibid. 2).


In other words, this is talking about a different angel from the one that was promised to Bnei Yisrael prior to the Sin of the Golden Calf. The name of the first one is the Name of God, and he indeed will not bear sin. The angel here is sent to help Israel, and God's Name is not within him; therefore, despite his help, he does not endanger Israel if they sin.


A similar explanation is offered by the Netziv:


"'I shall send before you an angel' – this is a special angel, to look out for Israel's needs. But it is not meant in the way that it is written in Parashat Mishpatim, 'Behold, I send an angel before you….' For there God's grace goes before them, and the angel with them, and therefore it was forbidden to ask anything of the angel; only from God. And this was difficult for the nation, therefore God said that there should be a special angel such that the Divine Presence should not be within him" (Ha-Emek Davar, ad loc.)


According to the Netziv, the text refers here to a regular angel, while in Parashat Mishpatim the reference was to an angel that walked with God – as, for example, in God's revelation to Avraham through the angels. To his view, of course, in Parashat Mishpatim, too, the assumption is that God journeys, i.e., He dwells in the midst of the camp, but there the text was talking about an angel there to help, going before the camp. It is difficult to understand, on the basis of his explanation, what the words above – "For My Name is within him – are supposed to mean, and why all that the Netziv says is not mentioned explicitly in the text.

Rashi (Shemot 23:20) offers a surprising interpretation:


"'Behold, I am sending an angel' – here they are being told that they are destined to sin, and the Divine Presence tells them (Shemot 33), 'I shall not ascend in your midst.'"


In other words, according to Rashi, this is the same angel – and therefore the announcement about the angel in the context of the Sin of the Golden Calf must be regarded as the central reading in this regard. Rashi's conclusion is that the angel that is spoken about in Parashat Mishpatim is a result of the sin, and the text is merely anticipating here what is due to follow. Obviously, this interpretation brings its own difficulties: there is no hint in the text that this announcement comes post facto. Why, then, should God command something here because of something that has not yet happened?


The Ramban raises a further question. The promise about the angel, uttered in the context of the Sin of the Golden Calf, was ultimately not fulfilled, because Moshe asked: "Let the Lord them go in our midst" – and God answered him in the affirmative. When, then, were these verses actually realized? He answers:


"The answer, according to this approach, is that that decree was not fulfilled during Moshe's lifetime, as it is written (further on, in 33:16), 'So shall we be set aside, I and Your nation,' and it says (Ibid. 17), 'For you have found favor in My eyes and I have known you by name,' and it is further written (Ibid. 34:10), 'All the nation will see that You are in its midst.' But after Moshe's death, [God] sent them an angel, and this is as it is written (Yehoshua 5:13-14), 'And it was, when Yehoshua was in Yericho, that he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold – a man stood in front of him with his sword drawn in his hand, and he said to him: Are you with us or with our enemies? And he said, No, for I am the captain of God's Host, now I have come.'"


Still, this explanation is somewhat forced. It is difficult to imagine that an announcement speaking of an angel "to guard you on the way" actually refers exclusively to what is going to happen later on, in the land. Moreover, the Mishkan was not abolished when they reached the land, such that there was a need for a new form of guidance.


The Ramban proposes a different explanation, and according to his proposal what the text means here is not that an angel will lead them, but rather that God Himself goes before the camp, and the title "angel" here is not meant to replace the revelation and guidance of God, but rather to teach us something about this certain manner of revelation.


We shall now try to get at the essence of what is going on, in light of the questions that we posed above.


Part 4: From an Angel to "I shall dwell in their midst"


In order to award thorough consideration to the questions that we have raised, we must now raise one of the most central and most famous questions arising from the second part of Sefer Shemot. In chapter 25 the Torah starts speaking about the Mishkan. Despite this, Rashi maintains (Shemot 31:18) that God did not command Moshe to build the Mishkan until he descended from the mountain, the day after Yom Kippur. The command concerning the Mishkan, to Rashi's view, comes after the sin of the golden calf and resulted from it:


"'And He gave to Moshe' – The Torah does not follow chronological order. The sin of the calf preceded the command to build the Mishkan by a long time: on the 17th of Tammuz the Tablets were broken and on Yom Kippur God was appeased towards Israel, and the next day they began contributing towards the Mishkan, which was established on the 1st of Nissan.


'To speak with him' – the statutes and the judgments in Parashat Mishpatim."


To Rashi's view, only the material covered in Parashat Mishpatim was conveyed to Moshe on the mountain prior to the Sin of the Golden Calf, since the command concerning the Mishkan came after the sin [2]. If we accept Rashi's approach then we are forced to assume that the structure of the entire second half of Sefer Shemot is not chronological, and all the verses of Teruma and Tetzaveh are not in their proper place. It is also difficult to understand the meaning of the expression, "Which You were shown on the mountain" and the suchlike, which appear in the commands concerning the Mishkan, unless we assume that there was another ascent by Moshe which is omitted from the narrative. The feeling here is one of after the fact, of the Mishkan as a place of prayer and atonement; a need that became apparent mainly as a result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. Moreover, the need for a place, a tangible experience, also appears to have become apparent through the sin, such that the Mishkan comes about to give it legitimate expression. Chazal adopt Rashi's approach and teach:


"These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Testimony – Testimony to all the people of the world that they [Israel] had been forgiven for the sin of the calf. To what may this be compared? To a king who married a woman and loved her; then he became angry at her and left. Her neighbors would tell her, 'Your husband will not come back.' Eventually he returned and came; he stood in the palace and ate and drank with her, yet her neighbors would still not believe that he was reconciled with her. But when they saw fragrant scent rising from the palace, everyone knew that he had been reconciled with her. Similarly, God loved Israel and gave them the Torah and called them a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' After forty days they became abhorrent; the nations said, 'He will not return to you.' Moshe stood and pleaded for mercy, and [God] told him, 'I have forgiven, according to your word' (Bamidbar 14). Moshe said, 'Who will inform the nations?' God said, 'Let them make Me a Sanctuary….' When the nations of the world saw the fragrance of the incense rising up from the Mishkan, they knew that God had been reconciled with them" (Tanchuma Pekudei 6).


The message is even more explicit in the following Midrash:


"When was Moshe told to make the Mishkan? On Yom Kippur. Because Moshe ascended the mountain three times and spent [a total of] a hundred and twenty days there – from the 6th of Sivan, when he ascended, until Yom Kippur, which is the 10th of Tishrei. And on that day we are told (Shemot 32), 'God was comforted for the sin of the calf.' On that day He told [Moshe], 'I have forgiven, according to your word.' And on that same day [Moshe] was told, 'Let them make Me a Sanctuary' (Ibid. 28), and on the same day [Moshe] said to [God], 'Forgive our sin and our iniquity, and take us as Your inheritance' (Ibid. 34): This day bequeathed to us forgiveness for all generations. And on that same day God said to him, 'For on this day there shall be atonement for you' (Vayikra 16), 'And they make the Mishkan eagerly and joyfully'" (Ibid. 11).


In this Midrash, the Mishkan is perceived as a place where the possibility of forgiveness was bestowed for all generations, and from this point of view it is the continuation of the principle of forgiveness that has its source in God's revelation following the Sin of the Golden Calf and the conveying of the Thirteen Attributes. God shows Israel not only the manner of prayer for asking forgiveness for their sins, but also the format for Divine service. Indeed, the altar that is spoken about after the giving of the Torah is used only for burnt offerings and peace offerings, as the verse stipulates. In the Mishkan, on the other hand, it was possible to offer sin and guilt offerings, and there was incense, and it was possible to be reconciled with God. This is the essence of the innovation represented by the Mishkan.


The approach of Rashi and Chazal, as expressed above, receives significant support from the questions we posed above. We demonstrated above that throughout the process of the Exodus, up until Moshe's ascent to receive the Tablets (end of chapter 24), not a word is said about the fact that a Mishkan is destined to be built. In fact, there are expressions that stand in contradiction to the idea of a Mishkan. And Rashi indeed proposes that the Mishkan was a later idea that came about as a result of the manifestation of sin. Originally there was no need for a Mishkan; it had no role. Apparently, according to Rashi, God's original intention was that He would lead the nation without any physical structure in which they could perform His service. It was only after the Sin of the Golden Calf that God commanded Moshe to build it.


It is still difficult to understand why, to Rashi's view, the parashyiot appear in the order that they do, with the command concerning the Mishkan preceding the Sin of the Golden Calf – while the Torah contains no hint that the sin preceded the construction of the Mishkan, both chronologically and conceptually. Admittedly, Rashi maintains that there is no chronological order throughout the Torah, and his interpretation rests on this assumption. But here we are not speaking of an isolated section, or a deviation from the chronology for which some local, specific explanation can be found. Rather, we are speaking of half of Sefer Shemot. Indeed, the Ramban – who differs with Rashi even on the methodological level and insists that the Torah is written in chronological order – proposes a different way of understanding the development of events:


"When God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel, face to face, instructing them – via Moshe – in a few commandments which are categories (prototypes), as it were, of the commandments of the Torah, as our Rabbis used to teach proselytes who wished to learn Judaism, and Israel accepted upon themselves to do all that they had been commanded by Moshe and God forged a covenant with them concerning all of this, they now became His nation and He was their God – as He had laid down the condition originally: 'And now, if you will listen diligently to Me and observe My covenant, then you shall be chosen for Me' (19:5), and He said, 'You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ibid. 6). NOW THEY WERE HOLY AND WORTHY OF HAVING A SANCTUARY IN THEIR MIDST, THAT GOD COULD REST HIS PRESENCE AMONG TEM, AND THEREFORE HE FIRST COMMANDED THE BUILDING OF THE MISHKAN, THAT HE MIGHT HAVE A HOUSE IN THEIR MIDST, SANCTIFIED FOR HIS NAME, AND THERE HE WOULD SPEAK WITH MOSHE AND COMMAND BNEI YISRAEL. THE CRUX OF THE PURPOSE OF THE MISHKAN WAS THAT THERE BE A PLACE FOR THE DIVINE PRESENCE TO REST – THIS WAS THE ARK, AS IT IS WRITTEN (25:22), 'I SHALL MEET WITH YOU THERE AND I SHALL SPEAK WITH YOU FROM UPON THE COVERING….' And the essence of the Mishkan was that the Divine glory which had rested upon Mount Sinai would rest upon it, in a concealed fashion. As we are told there (24:16), 'God's glory rested upon Mount Sinai,' and it is written (Devarim 5:21), 'The Lord our God showed us His glory and His greatness,' so it is written concerning the Mishkan, 'God's glory filled the Mishkan' (40:34). And twice it is mentioned that God's glory filled the Mishkan, corresponding to 'His glory and His greatness' [referring to Sinai]. Thus, in the Mishkan, the Divine glory that had appeared to them at Mount Sinai was always with Am Yisrael, and when Moshe came God spoke with him as He had spoken with him at Mount Sinai. And as we are told concerning the giving of the Torah (Devarim 4:36), 'From the heavens He let you hear His voice, that He might instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great fire,' so concerning the Mishkan it is written (Devarim 7:89), 'He heard the Voice speaking to him from above the covering, from between the two keruvim, and He spoke to him,' the expression 'He spoke to him' is repeated, to convey what is taught in our tradition – that the Voice would emerge from the heavens to Moshe, from above the covering, and from there He would speak with him…" (Ramban, beginning of chapter 25).


To the Ramban's view, God commands the building of the Mishkan only at the stage where the relationship between Israel and God is formalized and institutionalized, such that the nation is worthy of having God's Presence in its midst. From the Ramban's explanation it arises that the intention that a Mishkan would be built existed all along, but there could be no instruction to build it before the nation met certain essential conditions and experienced certain critical stages:


a.            acceptance of the commandments

b.           forging of the covenant: "I shall take you as My nation, and I shall be your God"

c.            Am Yisrael, as a nation entering into a covenant with God, is holy: "You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"

d.           Then the representatives of the nation merited a revelation of the Divine Presence upon the mountain ("They saw God").


Now, at this stage, Bnei Yisrael were ready, as a holy nation with God as their King, that God would lead them from within their midst – in other words, that the Divine Presence which had rested upon Mount Sinai and with which they had entered into a covenant, would continue to accompany the nation on its journey. Therefore it is at this point that the command to build the Mishkan is uttered.


If this is the obvious continuation – and, in fact, the purpose - of the process of the Exodus, as originally planned, then why does the Torah speak about the guidance of an angel rather than the guidance of God? And why does the Torah speak about making an altar at any place (the section about the "earthen altar"), rather than about the altar of the Mishkan? These questions are difficult to answer if we adopt the Ramban's approach; he severs the verses from their literal meaning in both regards.


Concerning the angel, he proposes either that either the parasha is to be understood as referring to the future, and as a result of the punishment in the Sin of the Golden Calf, and as Rashi understands it, and accordingly the original intention was for God to lead the nation with His Presence in their midst (unlike Rashi's understanding). Or, that the angel mentioned here does not cancel God's Presence; as he explains it according to our tradition – that God Himself would lead the nation, through the institution of the Mishkan, and the reference here is simply to a certain type of Divine revelation.


With regard to the earthen altar, the Ramban explains:


"'An earthen altar you shall make for Me' – according to our Rabbis (Mekhilta ad loc.), in the matter of altars, which are the ones that were made in the Mishkan and in the Temple, the commandment of altars made of earth and of stone are mentioned here to teach that these altars, too, should be made only for God, and there the burnt offerings and peace offerings should be sacrificed; not to spirits all over the fields. And in every place where His Name would be mentioned, He would come in His glory upon them and cause His Presence to rest among them and bless them… And the reason for the expression, 'And if,' in a command which is an obligation, is to teach that if the time will come when you merit to inherit the land and to build Me an altar of stone, in the Temple, take care that you do not build it of hewn stone – which you might think to do in consideration of the glory of the edifice. And the Ibn Ezra maintains that the command concerns the altar of the Testimony in Parashat Mishpatim (24:4) as in his commentary (Ramban 20:21-23).


The Ramban is aware of the difficulty inherent in the teaching of Chazal, who explain that the altar referred to here is the one in the Mishkan and in the Temple. The text here would appear to be speaking of an altar that is built voluntarily, that may be built one way or a different way, while the altar for burnt offerings in the Mishkan is an obligation!


Nevertheless, Ramban agrees to accept Chazal's forced interpretation, or alternatively proposes the approach of the Ibn Ezra – that the text is referring to the Altar of Testimony described in chapter 24, which was a one-time occurrence, for afterwards they were commanded to build the Mishkan. All of these accommodations are meant to solve the fundamental problem inherent in the Ramban's approach: that if the text is giving general guidance about building altars anywhere, this does not sit well with his contention that the Mishkan was planned in advance, and in fact represents the fulfillment of the purpose of the Exodus and its climax. Thus we conclude that the Ramban makes two uncomfortable accommodations in his interpretation in order to fit this in with his principle that the Mishkan is, conceptually, a direct and consistent continuation of the Exodus and its "religious" plan.


Part 5: Temporary Summary and Stock-Taking


We have presented the approaches of Rashi and the Ramban, and examined the advantages and disadvantages of each.


I believe that the Ramban's approach is fundamentally preferable in terms of the order of the texts and their developmental logic. But we are left with a most disturbing jump from Parashat Mishpatim, lacking any mention or hint of the idea of the Divine Presence resting amidst the camp, to Parashat Teruma, where the Mishkan is treated as something clear and obvious. We have the sense of a "missing link," as it were, which we need to find in order to answer our question. How can we bridge this conceptual gap between the Parashiyot of Yitro and Mishpatim on one hand, with their assumption that God is revealed at Sinai and thereafter oversees, or blesses, the nation but is not present in their midst, and Parashat Teruma, whose most central message is the Divine Presence resting amongst the nation?


In order to answer this question we must first address another one: does an examination of the internal order of events in the Parashiyot of Yitro and Mishpatim (i.e., the giving of the Torah, the conveying of the commandments, and the forging of the covenant) give rise to a sense of some significant omission that is not connected to the Mishkan?


I believe that the answer to this question is in the affirmative, and we shall conclude this shiur with a presentation of this point.


We may present the general order of the revelation at Sinai as follows:

a.            God speaks to Moshe, proposing that the nation enter a covenant with Him by listening to God

b.           Acceptance of the proposal.

c.            God's announcement that He is going to reveal Himself and to speak in order that the nation will believe in Moshe as His prophet.

d.           Preparations for revelation.

e.            Revelation and the Ten commandments (see last week's shiur)

f.            Call to Moshe to come to the mountain, and conveying of the commandments (earthen altar) and judgments to him alone, up to the section about the pilgrim festivals.

g.            Promise to Moshe concerning fulfillment of the promise that the nation will be brought to the land by an angel.

h.            Moshe descends and conveys what he received on the mountain to the nation.

i. Writing of the Book of the Covenant and the record of the covenant, including a renewed agreement by the nation.


What we have here is a clear structure in which the framework speaks about the covenant – first the proposal of the covenant and ultimately the sealing of the covenant itself, while the internal part concerns the revelation and the command itself.


There is a fixed relationship between the first part and the second part: the first part is preparation, while the second part is realization. At first God proposes to the nation that they enter into a covenant with Him by committing themselves to obeying Him, and the nation agrees – without knowing the substance of the commandments. In the second part they enter into the covenant willingly, after hearing what is declared in the Book of Testimony by Moshe.


The revelation in the first part is aimed at verifying the prophecy of Moshe ("they shall believe in you, too, forever"). Thus the ground is prepared for the second part, in which Moshe alone receives the substance of the covenant (the commandments and judgments) atop the mountain, after the nation already has faith in him.


This structure is complete and perfect from every point of view – except that one element is missing; one that is most critical to the covenant. We have a complete model of a covenant in Sefer Devarim. The description there contains all that we have here (minus the revelation, since the two sides now rely on the covenant of Chorev), with the addition of one fundamental element: blessings and curses. In other words, a covenant – along with the actual obligations ("If you will diligently listen to Me") – must contain consequences. If you will listen, then such-and-such. And if, heaven forefend, you do not – then: a list of punishments. HERE ALL OF THIS IS MISSING. The section about the angel, which is – of course – a promise of good, does not arise as a result of the covenant, as a promise that is conditional upon its fulfillment. It is promised unconditionally. In other words, the element of reward and punishment – so fundamental to any covenant, and which exists in every other covenant in the Torah – is absent here.


Let us summarize: we have seen that, in terms of the development of the religious idea of the Exodus, an important link connecting to the command to build the Mishkan, is missing.


We have also seen that a fundamental element is also missing from the giving of the Torah and the forging of the covenant at Sinai: the element of reward and punishment (the results of the covenant).


Is there a connection between these two missing elements? Is it perhaps the same element that is absent in both cases?


We shall leave this question unanswered, with the intention of returning to it, hopefully, in future shiurim.





[1] See the shiurim on Teruma and Tetzaveh, concerning the "kaporet" (covering of the Ark).

[2] This requires further clarification, since Parashat Mishpatim had already been conveyed to the nation and recorded in the Book of the Covenant over which the covenant was forged at the foot of the mountain, earlier on in chapter 34.


Translated by Kaeren Fish