"Behold, I Send an Angel Before You" vs. "I Shall Dwell in Their Midst"

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur



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

In honor and in memory of our mother / our teacher,
Evelyn Glick Bloom z"l of Pittsburgh, Chava Devora bat Shabtai v' Chaya, 
whose shloshim falls on 7 Adar.

-Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom, Michael Bloom


In memory of our fallen IDF soldiers whose burial sites are unknown.
A ceremony takes place every year at Mt. Herzl, on the 7th of Adar,
the yahrzeit
 of Moshe Rabbeinu,
whose final resting place is also unknown.
Yehi zikhram barukh.





"Behold, I Send an Angel Before You" vs. "I Shall Dwell in Their Midst"

By Dr. Brachi Elitzur



The last five parashiyot of Sefer Shemot raise many questions concerning the intention behind the extensive detail in the command to build the Mishkan and its vessels, in parashiyot Teruma and Tetzaveh, followed by a seeming repetition of the entire matter in the description of the fulfillment of the command, in parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei, and the place of parashat Ki Tisa in between these two units.


In the next few shiurim we will try to address these questions, but first we will return to an idea that we discussed in the first shiur on Sefer Shemot: the disagreement between God and Moshe concerning the appropriate mode of leadership of Am Yisrael. We examined this argument as centering on the question of whether Am Yisrael, following long years of servitude, would be able to achieve faith in God through a "speaking" mode of leadership, with a description of God's greatness, His power over nature, and the destiny that He had determined for the nation – "You shall serve God upon this mountain" (Shemot 3:12). Moshe maintains, "They will not believe… they will not hear…" (Shemot. 4:1), and he prefers to lead the people to faith in God by virtue of the evidence before their own eyes, through a visual, miraculous mode of leadership, in which they would behold God's greatness and power. God acquiesces to Moshe, and the process of bringing Am Yisrael out of Egypt is undertaken solely through the mode of leadership symbolized by the staff. The miracles in Egypt are quite tangible, and in the description of the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, the text emphasizes that it is the visual experience, the experience of seeing the fate of the Egyptians, that leads to faith:


And Israel saw Egypt dead upon the sea shore. And Israel saw the great hand with which God had acted upon Egypt, and the people feared God and they believed in God and in Moshe, His servant. (Shemot 14:30-31)


During the first few months of the journey through the wilderness, the same approach continues to reinforce the faith in God through miracles that take place whenever there is a need – real or imagined – amongst the people. God's hand is present and tangible in the miracles of the wilderness, but in some instances there is also an element or symbol that requires a more integrated, profound expression of faith that is not based on a visual impression – in preparation for the future mode of guidance of the nation. At Mara, where the water is miraculously sweetened, there is a divine command establishing that the nation's survival is dependent upon fulfillment of God's commandments:


He said, “If you will diligently obey the Lord your God, and do that which is right in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments, and observe all of His statutes – all of the disease which I put upon Egypt I shall not put upon you, for I am the Lord Who heals you." (Shemot 15:26)


The instructions accompanying the appearance of the manna and the quails - the defined hours when they will be provided, the time when they should be gathered, and the quantity that may be taken – develop the people's awareness of God's presence even during the intervals between one miracle and the next. The hours in between the descent of the manna and the descent of the quails represent a test of faith in God as the Source, Who will also provide for their needs the next day and in the days to follow. In the war against Amalek, Moshe's hands are held up heavenward, indicating that in times of trouble the people's faith should rest with God.


The climax of Moshe's mode of leadership comes at the Revelation at Sinai. The occasion is based entirely on a sensory experience of seeing the sounds, out of which God's words emerge:


And all the people saw the sounds and the lightning and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they were shaken and stood at a distance… And God said to Moshe, “So shall you say to Benei Yisrael: ‘You have seen that I have spoken with you from the heavens.’" (Shemot 20:15,19)


The Revelation at Sinai, then, is the climax of the visual mode of leadership. From this point onwards, now that God's existence has been firmly established before the eyes of all of Israel, the impression of the visual spectacle gradually gives way to a new level of faith that is based on speaking and hearing – a mode that rests upon the experience of the Revelation in the past. This explains the command that concludes the description of the Revelation:


You shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold shall you not make for yourselves. (20:19)


Ibn Ezra (in his short commentary) and Sforno explain:


Now that I have spoken with you face to face, directly, you have no need to make gods of silver and gold with me… And the meaning of the words, 'shall you not make for yourselves' is – [you shall not make] other [intermediaries] with Me, for I have no need for you to make gods of gold, and you too have no need, for behold, I have spoken to you directly, without any intermediary power between Me and you. (Ibn Ezra)


And since you have seen that you have no need for intermediaries in order to draw close to Me, you shall not make such as these with Me, as intermediaries. “An altar of earth shall you make unto Me” – you will likewise have no need to make sanctuaries of silver and gold and precious stones in order that I might draw close to you; an earthen altar will suffice. (Sforno)


Thus, now that God's existence is engraved upon the hearts of those who saw His Revelation, there is a command to serve God without intermediaries.


In between the laws of parashat Mishpatim, elaborating on the Ten Commandments and Moshe's ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets,[1] there is a description of a new mode of leadership:


Behold, I send an angel before you, to watch over you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared… For My angel will go before you, and bring you to the Emori, and the Chitti, and the Prizzi, and the Cna'ani, the Chivvi, and the Yevusi, and I will annihilate them. (Shemot 23:20-23)


Many different views are proposed in the attempt to interpret this new mode of leadership. Rashi identifies the angel referred to here as the same one that God announces to Moshe in chapter thirty-three, following the sin of the golden calf:


God spoke to Moshe: “Depart, go up from here, you and the people that you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I promised to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Ya’akov, saying, I shall give it to your descendants. And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Cna'ani, the Emori, and the Chitti, and the Prizzi, the Chivvi, and the Yevusi." (Shemot 33:1-2)


Rashi therefore comments on our verse:


"Behold I send an angel” – Here they are told that they are going to sin, and the Divine Presence tells them, “I will not ascend in your midst."


This suggestion raises a difficulty, formulated by Malbim:[2]


"Behold, I am sending an angel before you” – The commentators are confounded by this verse, and all of the mighty scholars are at a loss to explain it, for parashat Ki Tisa notes that after the sin of the golden calf, God told Moshe, “Depart, go up from here… and I shall send an angel before you, and I shall drive out the Cna'ani… for I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked nation, lest I devour you on the way.” And the nation heard this calamitous news and they mourned. And Moshe said, “If Your Presence will not be going [among us], do not take us up from here.” So why does God say also here, after Israel has committed no sin at all, that He will send an angel, yet they do not mourn, and Moshe does not beseech God at all…?


The question that both Ramban and Malbim raise with regard to Rashi's explanation is that if indeed this is the same decree that God made after the golden calf, why is Moshe's objection and supplication, as described in Ki Tisa, altogether absent from our parasha?


Abravanel proposes that the decree appointing an angel should be understood as a sort of intermediate stage, as a transition between the divine, miraculous mode of leadership that characterized the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai, and the divine miraculous mode of leadership that would accompany the nation when they entered the land. Moshe raises no objection because this is meant to be a temporary state of affairs, whereas after the sin of the golden calf God imposes His decree as an absolute, permanent change in His relationship with the nation:


After telling them the Ten Commandments as general principles, and teaching them the judgments (mishpatim) entailed in them, God said, “Behold, I send an angel before you,” as if to say: “You were afraid at My Revelation to you in all My glory and might, so you said, 'Let God not speak with us lest we die.' And it is indeed proper that you should not think that the supreme closeness to God that you enjoyed at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and at the giving of the Torah, and at this time, will continue constantly through this great and terrible wilderness in which you are journeying. For just as you are unwilling and unable to bear My words, so this wilderness is not able to bear such supreme closeness and My immediate divine guidance. Therefore, 'Behold, I send an angel before you…'” And this angel was not to lead them for ever more, as other angels lead the other nations, but rather just “to watch over you on the way,” meaning in the wilderness, so long as they would journey through it, “and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” – this being the holy land […] which God had prepared for settling them.


Malbim questions this interpretation, too:


Any discerning scholar will sense the extent to which this explanation is forced: since God Himself had already performed wonders for them in the wilderness, and in Egypt for their forefathers, directly and not through any emissary, why would He now hand them over – even temporarily – to the guidance of an angel?


Malbim's question concerns the philosophical ramifications of Abravanel's view, which suggests that the change in mode of guidance is meant specifically for the period of journeying in the wilderness – yet this is the time when the nation is in the greatest need of God's presence, like a father to a son who has just been born.


How, then, are we to identify this angel, and why does God announce the appointment of the angel at this particular point in time?


Setting aside Rashi's view that the angel here is the same one that is decreed in chapter thirty-three after the sin of the golden calf, we shall adopt Abravanel's view that the role of this angel is to lead the people in a new mode of leadership that replaces miraculous divine revelation with this-worldly guidance. In contrast to Rashi's view of the divine decree as a punishment for the future sin, and in contrast to Abravanel's view, we might present the plan for the leadership by the angel as a replacement for God's direct leadership from this point onwards, to continue even upon entering the land. Abravanel is forced to limit the period of the angel's leadership in order to explain the absence of any protest on Moshe's part. If there is indeed evidence of such a protest, then there is no need to delineate the wilderness journey as a self-contained period in this regard.


At the end of parashat Mishpatim, following God's appointment of the angel, Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the tablets:


God said to Moshe: “Ascend the mountain, to Me, and be there, and I shall give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandments which I have written, to instruct them…” And Moshe went into the midst of the cloud, and he ascended the mountain, and Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Shemot 24:12-18)


What took place during those forty days and forty nights?


Rashi maintains that God taught Moshe all 613 commandments while he was atop the mountain. Ibn Ezra and Ramban explain that God was conveying the laws of the Mishkan:


"And He spoke” – When Moshe ascended to the top of the mountain, God spoke to him concerning the Mishkan, the intention being that they should build a sanctuary in honor of God, and that He would dwell in it, and there He would speak to Moshe, who would no longer ascend the mountain [to hear God's word]. (Ibn Ezra)


He therefore commanded, first of all, concerning the Mishkan, so that He would have a house in their midst, dedicated to Him, and there He would speak with Moshe and command Benei Yisrael. (Ramban)


Ramban elaborates on the reason for commanding the laws of the Mishkan immediately after the Revelation at Sinai:


The essence of the Mishkan is that the Divine glory which rested upon Mount Sinai, should rest upon it, in a more concealed form. As it is written there, “And God's glory rested upon Mount Sinai” (Shemot 24:16), and it is written, “The Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness" (Devarim 5:21), and it is written concerning the Mishkan, “And God's glory filled the Mishkan” (Shemot 40:34). Twice it is mentioned that God's glory filled the Mishkan, corresponding to "His glory" and "His greatness." This indicates that the glory that had appeared to Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai was always with them, in the Mishkan. And when Moshe would come there, God would speak with him as He spoke to him at Mount Sinai. As it is written, concerning the giving of the Torah, “From the heavens He made His voice heard to you, to instruct you, and upon earth He showed you His great fire,” (Devarim 4:36), and concerning the Mishkan it is written, “And he heard the Voice speak to him from above the covering, from between the two keruvim, and it spoke to him” (Bemidbar 7:89). And the expression “spoke to him” appears twice, alluding to the teaching in the kabbalah that the Voice emanated from heaven towards Moshe, to above the covering [of the Ark], and from there it would speak to him. For every occasion of speaking with Moshe was from heaven, by day, and it emerged from between the two keruvim, in the manner described – “And you heard His words from the midst of the fire” (Devarim 4:36). Therefore they [the keruvim] were both fashioned from gold. And the text testifies accordingly: “… where I will meet you, to speak to you there… and it shall be sanctified with My glory” – for that will be a House of Meeting for divine speech, and it shall be sanctified by My glory.


According to Ramban, and as evidenced in the parallels that he cites between the descriptions of the Mishkan and the descriptions of God's glory at Mount Sinai, the Mishkan is meant to serve as a sort of “portable Sinai,” ensuring the continuation of God's presence over Israel so long as the Mishkan (or Temple) exists. This being the case, how is the command, "Let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst," to be reconciled with the decree, “Behold I send an angel before you,” that was uttered just one parasha earlier? Does the presence of the angel not represent the end of the period of God's direct, unmediated guidance and His constant presence in the Israelite camp, in favor of a more worldly mode of guidance that will be led by the angel?


It seems logical to posit that the decree of the angel, following the Revelation at Sinai, is not accepted by Moshe and that he expresses his protest when he ascends the mountain. There, in the encounter with God, the argument from the burning bush starts up again – but this time the details are not recorded in the text. We may presume that Moshe's main argument was that the people's faith was still fragile, and that a transition to a natural, worldly mode might sabotage that which had already been achieved and blur the momentous impression of the Revelation at Sinai. The results of this appeal become apparent at the beginning of our parasha, where God instructs Moshe in all of the laws of the Mishkan. God has acquiesced to Moshe's request and will allow the nation the continued accompaniment of His Presence for their journey through the wilderness.


The well-known debate as to whether the concept of the Mishkan was intended by God from the outset or whether it was commanded only as a corrective measure following the sin of the golden calf, takes an interesting turn in light of our discussion. The question rests on the methodological difference of opinion as to whether the Torah's narrative follows the chronological order of events, or not. Rashi maintains that the command to build the Mishkan is a result of the sin of the golden calf:


"And He gave to Moshe” – The Torah does not follow chronological order. The sin of the golden calf preceded the command to build the Mishkan by some time. On the seventeenth of Tammuz the tablets were broken, and on Yom Kippur God was appeased towards Israel. The next day they began the contributions towards the Mishkan, and it was put up on the first of Nissan.


Ramban, as we have seen above, argues that the commandment concerning the Mishkan had been intended from the outset, and that its appearance in the text corresponds with the chronological sequence of events. We argue here that the command concerning the Mishkan had not been God's original intention, but that it was introduced not as a result of the sin, but rather as a result of Moshe's supplication following God's appointment of the angel. Hence, the command to build the Mishkan, in parashat Teruma, appears in its proper chronological place.


On the basis of this understanding that the Mishkan was not God's original intention, and that it was nevertheless commanded prior to the sin of the golden calf, we will try to address the questions that we set forth at the beginning of this shiur, concerning the multiplicity of the details in the laws of its construction, the repetition in the description of the fulfillment of the command, and the break between the command and the fulfillment with the story of the sin of the golden calf and its results. All of this will occupy us in the shiur on parashat Tetzaveh.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  This sequence reflects the view that the verses here accord with the chronological order of events. Rashi maintains that Moshe's ascent actually preceded the textual account of the Ten Commandments.

[2]  Ramban likewise questions Rashi's interpretation: "But we face a question here, for that decree was not fulfilled: God told Moshe, 'I will send an angel before you… for I will not go up in your midst' (Shemot 33:2-3), but Moshe prayed for divine mercy, saying, 'If Your Presence will not be going [among us], do not take us up from here. How shall it then be known that I have found favor in Your sight – I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us?' (Shemot 33:15-16). And God acquiesced, telling him, 'Also this thing concerning which you have spoken – I shall do' (Shemot 33:17). And so our Sages taught (Massekhet Sanhedrin), that 'Even as a messenger we would not accept him [the angel Metatron], as it is written, “If Your Presence will not be going [among us], do not take us up from here.”'"