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Gold and Ashes – The Mishkan, the Golden Calf, and the Red Heifer

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish


A. Abstraction and Representation in Divine Service


One of the major dilemmas in Divine service concerns the perpetual tension between abstraction and concretization. What is the proper degree of abstraction required of a servant standing before his Maker, and what is the proper degree of concretization?


On the one hand, one is standing before the Lord of the universe, Who is incorporeal and formless, such that any image can only distort one’s understanding and lead one astray from the truth. Hence, one must suffice with the performance of service, without enlisting the aid of any sort of representational device.


However, at the same time, man is a creature of many capacities. Along with his intellect, which may be quite content with an abstract concept of Divinity, he also has other capacities, and these will not suffice with an abstract concept; they demand the impression, the effect, that arises through the senses and the imagination. Can we deny or belittle the sense of majesty and wonder that fills us when we encounter great architecture or music? Moreover, aside from the importance of artistic expression in creating an emotional experience, it also plays a role as a symbolic vessel of expression; it conveys spiritual messages through concrete forms in the material world.


This problem is an ancient one and my intention here is not to address it in a comprehensive way. In truth, it is clear that a certain measure of emotion-arousing artistic expression is legitimate. After all, the Tanakh and the midrashim adopt a literary approach that makes extensive use of metaphors and images, including anthropomorphism and allegorization of the relationship between God and His people. Thus, the issue I seek to address is not the question of legitimacy per se, but rather the proper balance. Should we accede to the needs of the human imagination and emphasize the artistic and sensory element, or is this too dangerous, such that we must prefer intellectual, philosophical abstraction, minimizing our efforts in the field of religious artistic creativity? Also, even if our discussion focuses on the aspect of symbolic realization of spiritual ideas, we must still ask what the proper measure of concretization in the material world would be, and when such concretization would be inappropriate, spiritually harmful, or even blasphemous.


It must be noted that different forms and elements of artistic expression should be treated separately. Literature is not the same as music, and neither of them is like the plastic arts; hence, each should be examined individually. Likewise, a distinction must be drawn between human attempts to depict God or theological truths, and more appropriate approaches to religious worship. However, although each of these areas is worthy of discussion in its own right, I shall focus here on the ramifications of this general question for our understanding of the second half of Sefer Shemot and the commandment concerning the red heifer.


B. Mount Sinai and the Mishkan


The transition from the Sinai revelation to the Mishkan, from a unique, one-time event to the fixed, ongoing Divine Presence, entails a transition from Divine revelation through means that emphasize abstraction, to one that finds expression in artistic vessels and artifacts. Admittedly, the revelation at Sinai entailed powerful sensory elements and was not limited to the intellect alone. However, the means of expression of the Divine revelation on Sinai serve to emphasize a transcending exaltedness that cannot be perceived through the senses, and the message that they broadcast is one of absolute abstraction: "Human thought cannot conceive it." The thunder and lightning, the cloud and smoke and fog – all expressions of an essence that is abstract and concealed – are among the most prominent and representative hallmarks of the Revelation at Sinai:


"And you drew near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of the heavens; darkness, cloud and fog. And God spoke to you from amidst the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but you saw no form, only a voice" (Devarim 4:11-12)


In the Mishkan, by contrast, there is extensive use of plastic art. There is an Ark with keruvim, a pure gold menorah with almond-shaped cups, bulbs and flowers, etc. Whether the focus here is on the symbolism of the vessels or on the inculcation of a tangible sense of Divine presence by artistic means, the Mishkan and the service therein center around the principle of concretization. The concealment and mystery of the revelation at Sinai are replaced by a revealed Mishkan, and abstraction is replaced with concretization.


C. The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Mishkan – Cause and Effect


This prompts us to reexamine the relationship between the sin of the golden calf and the Mishkan. There is a well-known debate among the commentators and the midrashim in this regard. Did the command to build the Mishkan precede the sin, or should the command be regarded as a response to the sin and an attempt to repair it, in light of the evidence that Bnei Yisrael are incapable of reaching an abstract level of Divine service, and need a tangible, visible object? To those maintaining the latter view, the golden calf came into existence as a result of this human need for tangible service, and the command to build the Mishkan was issued, after the fact, in response to this weakness. Had Bnei Yisrael been worthy and retained the higher, abstract level, there would have been no need for a Mishkan.


However, if we adopt the view of Ramban (Shemot 25:1; Vayikra 8:2), who maintains that the command to build the Mishkan came before the sin of the golden calf, then all the material symbolism and concretization of the Mishkan is understood not as a response to human frailty and sin, but rather as the ideal: this is how God wants His children to serve Him, and He sees this concrete expression as benefitting His human creation.


Ramban's approach has two unassailable advantages over the view of Rashi and the midrashim. First, the order of the parshiot, which present the command to build the Mishkan prior to the account of the sin, represents very solid support for his view. It must be emphasized that the significance of the Mishkan being mentioned first goes beyond the matter of chronology; it suggests that even conceptually, the Torah presents the Mishkan as the direct and proper follow-up to the giving of the Torah, even before the golden calf becomes an issue. Second, Ramban's interpretation allows us to view the Mishkan and the Temple, which are so central to our Divine service (as anyone who has ever opened a siddur or a Chumash will readily testify), not as a post-facto accommodation, but rather as the opposite. It is difficult to accept that an element so central to our religious life and ritual, despite its complexity, as discussed above, exists only as a response to sin. This is similar to the Ramban’s objection to the Rambam’s view regarding sacrifices as a concession to the Jews’ religious conceptions at the time of the giving of the Torah (Vayikra 1:9). However, even from Ramban's perspective, we must examine the connection between the Mishkan and the golden calf.


Perhaps even to Ramban the causality runs in the opposite direction: the Mishkan does not come in response to the golden calf; rather, the golden calf is fashioned in the wake of the Mishkan. It is the principle of concretization and illustration, so strongly expressed in the Mishkan, that encourages the people and lends legitimacy, in their eyes, to the golden calf. Had the nation remained only with the impressions of the Revelation at Sinai, they would have distanced themselves from any graven image, and the golden calf would never have come into existence. However, once they had been commanded to fashion the keruvim, the menora, and the other vessels, the use of forms and symbols had become permissible and legitimate. From here it was a short distance to fashioning the golden calf.


D. "Let the Heifer Come and Clean the Filth of its Young"


In the wake of the sin, there is a need to create proper balances so that the Mishkan will be able to exist and serve as a dwelling for the Divine Presence without the danger of the nation repeating the terrible mistake of the golden calf. This balance is created by means of the red heifer, which comes as a counterweight to the Mishkan and its sacrifices.


The principle of the red heifer is the opposite of the principle of sacrifice. Sacrifices were a gift offered by man to God; they center around the blood, the fats, the inner parts – the choice parts of the animal. The significance of the sacrifice is the offering of the best parts of the material object upon God's altar. In the case of the heifer, by contrast, the animal is burned and no use is made of the meat; only the ashes are used. It is not the material that is at the center of our attention, but rather its nullification or absence. The significance of the burning of the heifer is the utter destruction of matter and its replacement with abstraction (to the extent that this is humanly possible).


In regular sacrifices, the mitzva is fulfilled through two acts of “consumption” – an act that assumes a significant object ("'And if there shall be eaten (heakhol yeakhel)' - the text refers to two 'eatings' – one is the human act of eating, the other is the consumption of the meat [by fire] upon the altar" – Zevachim 13b). Obviously, the heifer represents the opposite: the idea of its consumption has no inherent significance except as a way to produce the ashes from the object. This difference is given clear halakhic expression in the fact that the law of me'ila (misappropriation) applies to the ashes of the red heifer – since this represents the essence of the object in terms of its commandment, but no such law applies to the ashes of a regular sacrifice, since the commandment has already been fulfilled and its ashes cannot be "misused."


This difference between the heifer (which denies corporeality, preferring abstraction) and animal sacrifice (which represents the importance of the material) also finds expression in the dimension of space. The sacrifice must be slaughtered and offered within the precinct of the Mishkan, a place where holiness is delineated and bounded, while the red heifer is slaughtered and burned outside of the camp, unbounded by the barriers of the material.


Thus, the principle of the red heifer stands in complete contradistinction to the principle of the Mishkan and its sacrifices. This contrast is the reason why the heifer is an appropriate response to the golden calf, by creating a balance and counterweight to the danger of the sin that may arise from the emphasis on the material that characterizes the Mishkan – as indeed happened in the episode of the golden calf. Chazal's teaching, "Let the heifer come and cleanse the filth of its young" comes to tell us that the heifer comes to address the realm of the material, for there is no more quintessential emblem of the material than excrement.


The use of the material, even where this is desirable, is complex and problematic, and requires balance. This explains Chazal’s view that the heifer is a commandment whose reason and root is unintelligible to us. Chazal's question mark when it comes to the reason for the red heifer is not the result of the commandment itself presenting such a difficulty; rather, it arises from the fact that the commandment of the red heifer is a paradox, standing in clear contradiction to the entire normative system. Our parasha's upholding of abstract ashes over the choice fats, its preference for the unbounded outside rather than the bounded inside, in contrast to the regular sacrifices – despite the initial order of actions that resembles the process of offering a sacrifice – is the central, but paradoxical, message of the red heifer. It is for this reason that it is perceived as concealed and hidden, on the one hand, but as a response that is appropriate and necessary, on the other.