Of Sequence and Sanctuary

  • Rav Chanoch Waxman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Dedicated in loving memory of my father, Lawrence Goldberg, Eliezer Ze'ev ben Moshe, A"H, whose yahrzeit is 7 Adar Bet. May this shiur be an ilui for his neshama. From Evelyn and Stanley Ocken.



Of Sequence and Sanctuary:

The View of Rashi

By Rav Chanoch Waxman



The opening of Parashat Teruma marks a major shift in the topic matter of Sefer Shemot. Until this point, the book has primarily concerned itself with slavery, redemption and the revelation at Sinai. However, from this point on, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary constructed by the Children of Israel, constitutes the focus. Excluding a short break for the sin of the golden calf and its aftermath (31:18-34:34), the entire remainder of the book (25:1-40:38) is dedicated to the instructions for building the Mishkan and its actual construction.


Despite this fundamental thematic turn, the book seems to preserve its linear quality, progressing almost seamlessly from one event to the next. Just as the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt (1:1-15:21), traveled through the desert (15:22-18:27) and received the Torah at Sinai (19:1-24:18) in sequential order, so too the events of the last part of the book appear to unfold in chronological sequence. The story develops as follows.


  • Upon the culmination of the covenant of Sinai (24:1-14), Moshe ascends the mountain and stays there for forty days and nights (24:18).
  • Section one - During this time, God instructs Moshe regarding the gathering of materials for the Mishkan and the construction and staffing of the sanctuary (25:1-31:18).
  • Section two - After Moshe has been given the instructions for constructing the Mishkan, the incident of the golden calf occurs. Moshe eventually achieves atonement for the Children of Israel and after another forty days on the mountain returns to the camp carrying a second set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (31:18-34:35).
  • Section three - Moshe then gathers the people, passes on the instructions for constructing the Mishkan, and commences the labor. The book closes with the completion of the labor and the setting up of the Mishkan (35:1-40:38)


This sequential reading of the latter part of Sefer Shemot constitutes the opinion of the majority of commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Ramban). In marked contrast, commenting on the first verse of the above section two, Rashi makes the following counterintuitive statement.

There is neither "earlier" nor "later" in the Torah (ein mukdam oh m'uchar ba'torah). The making of the golden calf occurred many days prior to the command for constructing the Mishkan… (31:18)

Rashi maintains that the literary sequence of events, the textual ordering of the Torah, does not necessarily indicate chronological sequence. While the Torah presents things as if the sin of the golden calf occurred in between the command of the Mishkan and building of the Mishkan, in reality things happened otherwise.

Factoring in Rashi's comments later on in the same verse (18:1) and his comments on the story of the covenant at Sinai (24:1-18, see Rashi 24:1, 3, 4, 12) yields the following time line for the events from Chapter Nineteen until the end of the book.

  1. Group one - the events prior to revelation of the Ten Commandments

  1. The preparations for the revelation - (19:1-25)
  2. The covenant at Sinai - (24:1-11)

  1. Group two - the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the immediate aftermath

  1. The Ten Commandments and the flight of the people (20:1-18)
  2. Moshe's ascent to the mountain to receive the stone tablets and commune with God for forty days (24:12-18)

  1. Group three - the events during Moshe's first forty day stay on the mountain and their aftermath

  1. Moshe receives the laws regarding gods of gold and silver, altars and the rules of Parashat Mishpatim (20:19-23:33)
  2. The construction of the golden calf and its aftermath (31:18-34:35)

  1. Group four - the story of the Mishkan

  1. The instructions for making the Mishkan (25:1-31:17)
  2. The passing on of the instructions to the people and the actual construction of the Mishkan (35:1-40:38)

Rashi's non-sequential reading of the events of the middle and latter part of Sefer Shemot, his creation of a gap between the real order of events and their textual presentation, raises numerous obvious questions. Most simply, what constitutes the motivation for doing so? While it may be the case that the textual order of the Torah does not necessarily reflect chronological order, this does not mean that the Torah always presents events in an order other than their actual occurrence. Seemingly, any claim of "ein mukdam um'uchar," of the existence of a gap between textual and chronological order, should be accompanied by a compelling reason for making the claim.

Furthermore, claiming that a particular group of narratives are not presented in chronological order raises the question of what exactly accounts for the order in which the Torah presents the stories. If chronology doesn't constitute the ordering principle, what does?

If so, even if we wish to limit our analysis to Rashi's position regarding the latter parts of Shemot, we are faced with a dual question. First, what compels Rashi to assume that Parashat Teruma, the story of the instructions for building the Mishkan, occurred after, rather than before, the sin of the golden calf? Second, and perhaps more importantly, why does the Torah place things out of "order?" Why does the Torah present the instructions for the Mishkan before the story of the golden calf, rather than afterwards?


The concept of a sanctuary appears relatively late in the story of Sefer Shemot. In fact, the first mention of worship and cult after the revelation of the Ten Commandments fails to mention the construction of a full-fledged sanctuary. God tells Moshe to inform the Children of Israel of the following.

You yourselves have seen that I spoke with you from heaven. With Me, therefore, do not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and peace offerings…in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you (20:19-21).

Rather than a full-fledged sanctuary made from precious metals and fine fabrics, God commands the Children of Israel to make a simple earthen altar. The commandment comes after the prohibition of making gods of silver or gold "along" with the Lord and seems logically connected to it. But what constitutes the connection?

As pointed out by both Ibn Ezra (20:20) and Sforno (20:19), the tension between the physical and material on the one hand, and the immaterial and metaphysical on the other hand, constitutes the driving logic of the entire passage. At Sinai, God demonstrated to the Children of Israel that His very presence is wholly immaterial. He is but a voice. He is wholly other than the physical and cannot be governed by its rules or symbols. Consequently, representations of God, symbols of God, intermediaries, or attempts to channel His presence to a determined locale, constitute the antithesis of the proper worship of God. Hence the prohibition of "gods" of silver and gold.

Similarly, the cleavage between God and the physical plane determines not just the prohibited form of worship, but also the commanded form of worship. An altar made for the worship of God should be of plain earth, the antithesis of an elaborate physical structure meant to serve as an intermediary, material symbol or abode of God (Sforno). Finally, even this altar constitutes an impermanent rather than fixed holy place. God may "come" to any place He fixes His name upon in order to be worshipped and in order to bless the Children of Israel.

This approach creates quite a problem in reading the story of the Mishkan. Unlike our passagabove, what might be termed "Introduction to Worship," the instructions for the building of the Mishkan are rife with physicality, precious metals, materials and materialism. The Mishkan is a permanent, albeit portable, sanctuary described as the resting place of God (25:8). The altar is not made from a heap of dirt or stones (20:21-22) but rather out of wood and copper (27:1-8). Finally, the solid gold keruvim that top the ark, no matter what their form, or whether their outstretched wings form a throne or not, seem perilously close to the gods of gold made "along" with God forbidden by the "Introduction to Worship" (20:19-21).

In sum, the very existence of the Mishkan, and the dedication of a large part of Sefer Shemot to the details of its planning and construction, seems to negate the fundamental principles of divine worship introduced at Sinai.

The answer to this conundrum may lie in exploring the story of the golden calf. Upon growing impatient for Moshe's return, the people demand of Aharon to "make us gods" (32:1). This of course is strange. How does one make a deity? To add to the mystery, Aharon seems to know exactly how to go about the matter. He asks the people to donate gold and either by casting it in a mold, or overlaying it on a wooden frame, fashions the golden calf (32:2-4).

At this point, the people paid homage to the image and declared "this is your god(s) O Israel who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (32:4). Do the people believe that the calf is a representation of the Lord? Or perhaps they believe that they have been redeemed from Egypt not by the Lord, the God of their forefathers, but rather by the calf deity. In fact neither of these interpretations is correct. They are engaged in the well-known procedure of making a god of gold "along" with the Lord. In fact when Moshe returns to God to pray for the people, he explicitly describes their sin as a "great sin," the act of making "god(s) of gold" (32:31). In other words, the golden calf is meant to somehow embody the power of God, to channel the presence of the Lord and bridge the gap between God and the people.

Aharon's reaction to the people's claim further supports this interpretation. Rather than challenging the people's idolatry, he builds an altar in front of the calf and proclaims a holiday to the Lord the very next day (32:5). The calf constitutes a way to connect with God, a method of seeking his leadership and a means of worship, not a choice of another deity.

When the people get up the next morning to bring their burnt offerings and peace offerings (32:6), they engage in a bizarre parody of the worship instructions given at Sinai (20:19-22). Indeed they bring burnt offerings and peace offerings upon a hastily erected and temporary altar probably made of a heap of dirt or stones. Yet this simple altar stands in front of the "god of gold," the physical and magical device meant to capture the presence and power of God, to embody and confine the infinite in the finite physical realm. Part of God's message at Sinai has somehow been missed.

This brings us back to the Mishkan. Just as the golden calf constitutes a contradiction of the Sinaitic rules of worship, so too the Mishkan constitutes an apparent violation of the rules of worship. As pointed out above, the very existence of a physical space "containing" God, the precious metals, the wood and metal altar, and the keruvim all stand at odds with the theological and legal imperatives of Sinaitic worship. What has happened?

The answer may be the sin of the golden calf. Whether due to the strength of the people's ties to Egyptian conceptions and habits or sheer human nature, the people prove themselves incapable of the rules laid down in the "Introduction to Worship" (20:19-21). They cannot imagine a mode of divine service that strives to be as immaterial and non-physical as the God it serves. They cannot imagine a deity wholly other than the physical, present merely by his word and will. They make themselves a god of gold. In response, God makes what might be thought of as a grand compromise. He provides them with a mode of worship appropriate for the people. Whether as mere symbol, or as an actual metaphysical act of "tzimzum," God confines His infinite self within the finite space of the sanctuary. It serves as His house. It is His table, His lamp and His chariot-chair represented by the keruvim that fill the sanctuary. In stark and marked contrast to ideal theology, He provides the people with physical representation, permanent presence and a glorious golden means to find the divine. In sum, the command of the Mishkan comes in response to the crisis of the golden calf.

This brings us back to Rashi and his non-sequential reading of the latter part of Sefer Shemot. In line with the textual points and ideas outlined above, Rashi's reading places the sin of the golden calf before the command for the building of the Mishkan. While we can never know the precise motivation behind Rashi's interpretation, his reading does indeed dovetail with viewing the Mishkan as a response to the crisis of the golden calf and the problem of worshipping an immaterial God.


While thinking about the Mishkan as a response to the golden calf may help explain Rashi's claim of "ein mukdam u'meuchar," the theory outlined above is in some sense troubling. Can we really view the command of Mishkan as a compromise, as something less than an ideal, as a response to either a particular contingent moment in history or human nature? Doesn't this approach subtly undermine the centrality of the sanctuary in Tanakh, Jewish Law and Jewish History?

Rather than enter directly into this difficult issue, I would like to approach it by discussing a different problem already hinted at earlier. As pointed out above, a claim of "ein mukdam u'meuchar" must not only possess a compelling reason. It should also include an explanation of the "textual," i.e. non-chronological, ordering of the Torah. Not just the motivation, but also the presentation must be explained. In other words, if the Torah has deliberately arranged the text out of "order," this must serve some purpose or be based upon some set of principles.

At first glance, the explanation advanced above, Mishkan as response and compromise, seems to fail this test. What possible literary or pedagogic purpose is served by placing the instructions for the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf, precisely in the wrong place? This placement in fact obscures, rather than elucidates, the true relation between the two. If so, let us take a closer look at the literary placement of the instructions for the Mishkan (25:1-31:17).


As noted above, Rashi does more than just flip the positions of the instructions for the Mishkan and the sin of the golden calf in creating his chronology. He also shifts the chronological position of the covenant at Sinai (24:1-11), placing it back in "Group One," the events before the revelation of the Ten Commandments. In addition, he also rereads the timing of Moshe's ascent to the mountain to receive the stone tablets (24:12-18), placing this event back in "Group Two," the revelation and aftermath of the Ten Commandments.

In other words, according to Rashi, the Torah engages in dual displacement of texts. From one direction, it moves the corpus of Chapter Twenty-five and onwards, the instructions for the Mishkan, that occur after the golden calf to an "earlier" position. From the other direction, the Torah moves the events of Chapter Twenty-four, both the covenant at Sinai (24:1-11) and the ascent of Moshe to receive the tablets (24:12-18) to a "later" position, placing them in direct juxtaposition to Chapter Twenty-five, the instructions for the Mishkan. The purpose seems to be to create a Sinai-Mishkan textual flow.

Moreover, numerous literary parallels exist between the Sinai stories of Chapter Twenty-four and the Mishkan. As pointed out in the past, the story of the covenant of Sinai emphasizes a three-part division of people and space. Moshe ascends alone all the way up the mountain tothe Lord (24:2, see 24:12, 18). The elite, the priests and elders occupy an intermediate position somewhere on the mountain and are privileged with some lesser form of the Lord's presence (24:1, 9-11). The third group, the people, remain down at the bottom of the mountain, along with the altar they have constructed and the sacrifices they have brought (24:4-5). But this in fact constitutes the division of people and space present in the Mishkan.

The Mishkan is divided into three areas, the holy of holies containing the ark, the remainder of the tent of meeting containing the other vessels, and an external area containing the altar. According to Chapter Twenty-five, God meets with Moshe and speaks to him from "above the covering (of the ark), between the two keruvim" (25:22). In other words, Moshe and seemingly Moshe alone, enters into the holiest space. Similarly, and once again in parallel to the covenant at Sinai, the elite, the priests, enter into the second space, the tent of meeting (28:43, Vayikra 16:2). Finally, the people remain outside of the two inner spaces, in a "lower," external area where the altar is located (see Vayikra 9:23-24).

Moreover, just as the covenant at Sinai emphasizes text and sacrifices, so too the Mishkan includes text and sacrifices. The "book of the covenant" (24:7), containing the "commands of God" (24:4) that the Children of Israel react to by declaring "we will do and obey" finds its parallel in the "testimony," i.e. the Torah (see Rashi 25:16), placed in the ark under the "keruvim-throne" of the "King." Likewise, the celebratory, communal and covenantal sacrifices (24:4-5) of Sinai find their parallel in the daily sacrifices performed upon the altar in the Mishkan.

To put all this together the deliberate juxtaposing and paralleling of the covenant at Sinai and Mishkan is meant to emphasize that the Mishkan constitutes a symbol and physical enshrining of a particular moment in time, the contracting of the covenant at Sinai. The Mishkan and its daily function stand as a constant reminder and embodiment of God's visit at Sinai and the Children of Israel's commitment to the "book of the covenant," their statement of "we will do and obey."

Alternatively, we may consider not so much the connection of the first half of Chapter Twenty-four (24:1-11) to the Mishkan, but the link between the second half of Chapter Twenty-four, the ascent of Moshe (24:12-18), and the Mishkan. As already pointed out by Ramban (25:1), the language and images parallel various Mishkan texts. Just as God "rested" upon the mountain in the story of Moshe's ascent to receive the tablets (24:16), so too God "rests" in the Mishkan (25:8). Just as His cloud "covered the mountain" (24:15-16), so too His cloud covered the Mishkan upon its completion (40:34). Finally, and most crucially, just as God summoned Moshe to enter and receive the tablets and Torah (24:12,18), so too God summons Moshe into the tent of meeting (Vayikra 1:1) in order to speak with Moshe, and pass His commands on to the Children of Israel (Shemot 25:22). Once again, the Mishkan constitutes a continuation of Sinai, a means of communication, a method for the ongoing revelation of the Torah.

Needless to say, the two connections between Chapters Twenty-four and Twenty-five, between Sinai and Mishkan constitute two sides of the same coin. While the Mishkan symbolizes revelation and constitutes a means for the ongoing delivery of God's word, it also symbolizes covenant, an ongoing commitment to "do and obey" the word of God.


To close the circle, let us return to Rashi, "ein mukdam u'meuchar," the Torah's deliberate choice of textual ordering and the philosophical problem of Mishkan as a compromise.

I have tried to argue that Rashi's position regarding the chronology of the latter part of Shemot, a position seemingly rooted in viewing Mishkan a response to the golden calf, winds up emphasizing the link between Sinai and Mishkan. The seam between Chapters Twenty-four and Twenty-five constitutes not so much an incidental result of the natural unfolding of events, but a deliberate construction meant to emphasize the parallel between Sinai and Mishkan and the notion of Mishkan as continuation of the communication and covenantal consciousness of Sinai.

If so, something highly complex, but hopefully rather compelling, emerges from the position of Rashi. On the one hand, Mishkan is a response to the sin of the golden calf and the problem of worshipping an immaterial God. Yet at the same time, it constitutes far more than a mere forsaking of unrealizable ideals. It constitutes not just a symbol or perhaps even contraction of God's presence, but also a representation and continuation of the covenant at Sinai, a means to continue the communication of God's word and will. In other words it provides the solution of Sinai for bridging the gap between an immaterial God and His people.

To phrase this slightly differently, it was precisely the failure of covenantal consciousness, the ability to connect to God through His word and will that led to the sin of the golden calf. His presence gone from the mountain, His voice a mere echo and His word a dead text, the Children of Israel tried to conjure His presence, to connect to Him through a "god of gold." The Mishkan as portable Sinai resolves this fundamental problem. It stands as reminder of the covenant and serves as a means to hear His ongoing word. While Mishkan may indeed emerge from the crisis of the golden calf, it nevertheless teaches the true lesson of Sinai, connecting to God through His covenant and word. It is both compromise and ideal.


Further Study

  1. Ramban views the purpose of the Mishkan as the mystical indwelling of God amongst the people. For Ramban this constitutes a metaphysical and religious ideal. The shiur above does not adopt this interpretation. See Ramban's comments to Shemot 25:1, 21. See Shmuel I:4:4, II:6:2, Melakhim II:19:15 and Divrei Ha-yamim I:28:18. a) Does Ramban's evidence necessitate his conclusion regarding the meaning of the Sinai-Mishkan parallel? b) See Melakhim I:8:27, Yeshayahu 66:1 and Abarbanel's first question on Parashat Teruma. Try to utilize some of the ideas in the shiur to reconcile the contradiction between these verses and the previous set.
  2. Reread 20:21-22. See Sforno and Ibn Ezra 20:21, and Ramban 20:21-22. Try to follow through the implication of Ibn Ezra and Ramban's respective positions. Note the consistency in Ramban's overall approach.
  3. Review Rashi's chronology for the latter part of Shemot. Try to infer when 20:19-23:33 is told by Moshe to the people. What implication does this have for the sin of the golden calf? How might this impact on the role of Aharon?
  4. See 20:15-16 and 32:1. Try to trace the issue of "intermediaries" by integrating last week and this week's shiurim.





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