Terumah: The Mishkan - Before or After Chet HaEgel?

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Had it not been for chet ha-egel [the sin of the Golden Calf], would Bnei Yisrael have needed a mishkan?

Many claim that the answer to this 'philosophical' question lies in the famous 'exegetical' controversy between Rashi and Ramban concerning when the commandment to build the mishkan was first given, before or after the sin of the golden calf.

In this week's shiur, as we study this controversy and its ramifications, we will show how the answer to this question is not so simple.  While doing so, we will also try to make some sense out of the thorny issue of 'ein mukdam u-me'uchar ba-Torah'.

Introduction - Four Units

To understand the source of this controversy between Rashi and Ramban, we first divide the last half of Sefer Shmot into four distinct units.  In last week's shiur, we defined and discussed the first of these four units - chapters 19-24, the unit we refer to as Ma'amad Har Sinai.

Chapters 25-31 [i.e. parshiyot Terumah, Tetzaveh, and the first half of Ki Tisa] also form a distinct unit, as this section includes a set of laws whose sole topic is God's commandment to build the mishkan.

Similarly, Chapters 32-34 [the 2nd half of Parshat Ki Tisa] also form a distinct unit, as they contain a narrative that describes the incident of chet ha-egel.

Lastly, chapters 35-40 [parshiyot Vayakhel/Pekudei] form the final unit in Sefer Shmot, as they describe the mishkan's actual construction.

The following table reviews these four units:

(A) 19-24 Ma'amad Har Sinai [the first luchot] Yitro/Mishpatim
(B) 25-31 The commandment to build the mishkan Teruma/Tetzaveh/1st half of Ki Tisa
(C) 32-34 Chet Ha-egel [the second luchot] 2nd half of Ki Tisa
(D) 35-40 Building the mishkan Vayakhel/Pekudei

The above table can help us better understand the basic controversy between Rashi and Ramban.  While Ramban keeps Chumash 'in order'  [A-B-C-D], Rashi claims that God ordered the mishkan's construction [unit 'B'] only after the events of chet ha-egel [unit 'C'], and hence the order would be A-C-B-D.  [See Rashi on 31:18.]

At first glance, Ramban's opinion appears most logical.  To understand and appreciate Rashi's opinion, we must first explain more fully the basis of Ramban's approach.

The First Forty Days - for What?

Recall that at the conclusion of Parshat Mishpatim [the end of Unit A], Moshe ascended Har Sinai to receive the "luchot, torah, & mitzva" (see 24:12).  As we know, the luchot are the tablets (upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments).  It is unclear, however, to what the words torah & mitzva refer.  [Note how many different opinions are found among the commentators on 24:12!]

However, when we study the above chart, it may provide a simple answer to this question.  If we simply follow the simple order of narrative in Chumash, then the torah & mitzva mentioned in 24:12 must be the mitzvot that follow, i.e. - unit B!

In other words, 24:12-18 tells us that Moshe ascends Har Sinai to receive the torah & mitzva, and then 25:1 continues by explaining what God told Moshe.  Those commandments continue until the end of chapter 31.

[For those of you familiar with computers, this is similar to the concept of 'WYSIWYG' - What You See Is What You Get.  What the Torah records when Moshe goes up - is exactly what Moshe received at that time.]

Furthermore, Moshe ascends Har Sinai first and foremost to receive the luchot (see 24:12) - the symbol of the covenant at Har Sinai (see 19:5, 24:7).  Considering that these luchot are to be housed in the aron, then it is only logical that the torah & mitzva refer to the laws of the mishkan.

Finally, considering that God informs Moshe that once the mishkan is assembled he will continue convey His mitzvot from above the 'kaporet' (see 25:21-22), it stands to reason that the laws of the mishkan are not only the first - but also the only mitzvot transmitted to Moshe during those forty days.  Once the mishkan is built, the remaining mitzvot can be transmitted to Moshe via the kaporet!

[In fact, note that once the mishkan is assembled (see Shemot chapter 40), immediately afterward God transmits an entire set of mitzvot to Moshe from the 'kaporet in the ohel mo'ed - better known as Sefer Vayikra!  (See 1:1.)]

Despite the simplicity of this approach, not a single commentator advances it, for two very good reasons:

  • First of all, it would not require forty days for God to teach Moshe just the laws of the mishkan.  There must have been something else as well.
  • Many other sources later in Chumash imply that Moshe Rabbeinu learned many other mitzvot on Har Sinai.  See, for example, Parshat Behar (see Vayikra 25:1) and the mitzvot in Sefer Devarim (see 5:1-28 and 6:1).

For these reasons, the commentators must explain why specifically the laws of the mishkan are recorded at this point in Sefer Shmot, even though many other mitzvot were also given to Moshe during those forty days.

Ramban (see 25:1) offers a very comprehensive and emphatic 'pro-mishkan' approach.  Drafting both textual and conceptual arguments, Ramban claims that the mishkan serves as a vehicle to perpetuate the experience of Ma'amad Har Sinai; it is therefore the first mitzva that Moshe receives when he ascends Har Sinai.  Even though Moshe received other mitzvot at that time as well (see Ramban on 24:12), Sefer Shmot focuses specifically on the mishkan because it reflects the unique level that Bnei Yisrael attained when they accepted God's covenant at Har Sinai.

Furthermore, at the focal point of the mishkan lies the aron, which contains the luchot - the symbol of that covenant at Har Sinai.  [Hence the first mitzva is to build the aron.]

To summarize Ramban's approach, we will quote a few lines from his commentary [though it is highly recommended that you read the entire Ramban inside]:

"After God had given the Ten Commandments directly to Yisrael and instructed them with a sampling of the mitzvot (i.e. Parshat Mishpatim)... and Bnei Yisrael accepted these laws and entered a covenant (24:1-11)... behold they became His nation and He became their God, as was originally stipulated [at brit mila and Har Sinai]... Now they are worthy to have a house - His dwelling - in their midst dedicated to His Name, and there He will speak with Moshe and command Bnei Yisrael... Now the 'secret' ('sod') of the mishkan is that God's glory ('kavod') which dwelled on Har Sinai will now dwell [instead] on the mishkan 'be-nistar' [in a more hidden manner, in contrast to Har Sinai]..." (see Ramban 25:1).

Rashi's Approach

Despite the beauty and simplicity of Ramban's approach, Rashi claims exactly the opposite (see 31:18): that the commandment to build the mishkan came not only after, but actually because of, chet ha-egel.  In other words, Rashi posits that the parshiot are not presented according to their chronological order.  Rashi goes even further, claiming that during the first forty days Moshe received all the mitzvot of the Torah except the laws of the mishkan!

At first glance, such an interpretation seems untenable.  Why should the Torah record at this point specifically the mitzvot that Moshe did not receive at this time, while omitting all the mitzvot which he did receive at this time?  What could possibly have led Rashi to this conclusion?

To answer this question, we must first explain the exegetical principle of 'ein mukdam u-me'uchar ba-Torah' [literally: there is no order in the sequence of parshiot in the Torah].  Despite the common misunderstanding to the contrary, this principle does not imply that Chumash progresses in random sequence.  Rather, it simply means that the arrangement in which Chumash records its parshiot does not necessarily reflect their chronological order.

[Most commentators, and especially many of the Midrashim quoted by Rashi, employ this approach.  Ramban, however, consistently disagrees with this assumption, arguing that Chumash does follow in chronological order.  Unless a certain technical detail 'forces' him to say otherwise, he will assume that the order in which Chumash is written corresponds with the precise chronological order of the events as they took place.]

The principle of ein mukdam u-me'uchar implies that when Moshe wrote down the Torah in its final form in the fortieth year (see Devarim 31:25-26), its parshiot were organized based on thematic considerations, and hence not necessarily according to the chronological order of when they were first given.  By doing so, the Torah conveys its message not only by the content of each parshia, but also by intentionally juxtaposing certain parshiot next to one another.

[See Chizkuni on Shemot 34:32 for an important insight regarding this explanation.]

Rashi, following this approach, assumes that Chumash (at times) may prefer a conceptual sequence over a chronological one.  Therefore, Rashi will often explain that a certain parshia actually took place earlier or later when the progression of theme implies as such.

With this background, we can better understand Rashi's approach in our context.  Employing the principle of ein mukdam u-me'uchar, Rashi always begins with considerations of theme and content in mind.  He therefore cannot overlook the glaring similarities between the construction of the mishkan and chet ha-egel.  It cannot be just by chance that:

*         Bnei Yisrael must collectively donate their gold to build the mishkan (compare 25:1-2, 32:2-3);

*         Betzalel, Chur's grandson, is chosen to build the mishkan; [Rashi follows the Midrash which claims that Chur was killed because he refused to allow Bnei Yisrael to build the egel.  (See Chizkuni 31:2.)]

  • The opening pasuk concerning the mishkan - "and they shall make for Me a mikdash and I will dwell in their midst" (25:8) - appears to rectify Bnei Yisrael's situation in the aftermath of chet ha-egel, when Moshe must move his tent (called the ohel mo'ed) far away - outside the camp (33:7);
  • Aharon must bring a par (a bull / an egel is a baby bull) for a chatat offering during the mishkan's dedication ceremony.  [The requirement of a chatat implies the committal of a sin; see Rashi 29:1.]

Rashi therefore explains that the commandment to build the mishkan came after chet ha-egel (during the last forty days), for it served as a form of atonement for that sin.

[Nevertheless, it remains unclear according to Rashi why the Torah chose to record these parshiot out of chronological order.  We'll return to this question later in the shiur.]

Lechatchila or Bedieved?

It is very tempting to consider this dispute between Rashi and Ramban a fundamental argument regarding the reason behind the mishkan.

Clearly, according to Ramban, the mishkan is 'lechatchila' [ideal].  In other words, even had chet ha-egel never occurred, it still would have been God's desire that Bnei Yisrael build a mishkan, for it serves as a physical representation of God's presence in their midst.

How should we understand Rashi?  Can we infer from his interpretation that the mishkan is 'be-di'avad' [a compromise]?  In other words, had it not been for chet ha-egel, would there never have been a commandment to build a mikdash?  Was the mitzva to build the mishkan simply an 'after-thought'?  Was it only in the aftermath of Bnei Yisrael's sin that God realized the people's need for a physical representation of His presence?

Despite the temptation of this conclusion, we must first prove that, even according to Rashi's interpretation, one can (and must) agree that God had originally intended that at least some form of physical symbol be used to represent Him.

Temple Terminology

To reconcile Rashi's interpretation with Ramban's explanation of the mishkan, we must differentiate between two concepts:

  1. MISHKAN and

Although both words describe a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of God, for the sake of clarity, each word (in our explanation that follows) will be given a more specific meaning.

  • The mishkan is a temporary sanctuary (a Tabernacle), a portable, tent-like structure.  [Good for travel.]
  • The mikdash is a permanent sanctuary (a Temple), such as the massive stone structure built by King Solomon.

We posit that both Rashi and Ramban must agree that the concept of a Sanctuary, a symbol of God's Shechina (the divine presence) dwelling with Bnei Yisrael, is lechatchila and in fact comprises a fundamental theme throughout the entire Tanach.  To prove this, we must return to some basic concepts previously discussed in our shiurim on Sefer Breishit.

Recall that we first encountered the theme of mikdash when Avraham Avinu builds a mizbeach in Bet-El and "calls out in God's Name" (see 12:8 & 13:4).  Later, at this same site, Yaakov Avinu awakes from his dream and exclaims:

"Alas, this is the site for a Bet Elokim, for it is the gate to the heavens" (Br.28:17).

Yaakov then erects a 'matzevah' (monument) and vows that upon his return to Canaan he will establish the site of his matzevah as a Bet-Elokim - a House for God. [See Breishit 28:17-22.]

Thus, the very concept of a Bet-Elokim clearly preceded the golden calf.

Furthermore, even in 'shirat ha-yam', the song that Bnei Yisrael sung after they crossed the Red Sea, we already find an allusion the establishment of a mikdash immediately upon their arrival in the land:

"Tevieimo ve-titaeimo be-har nachalatcha, machon le-shivtecha... -  mikdash, Hashem konanu yadecha..." (See Shemot 15:17, and its context!)

Finally, in Parshat Mishpatim we find conclusive proof that the basic concept of a Bet-Elokim is totally unrelated to the events of chet ha-egel.  Recall that even according to Rashi, the laws recorded in Parshat Mishpatim were certainly given before chet ha-egel.  [See Rashi on 31:18, where he explains that these laws were given to Moshe Rabbeinu during his first forty days on Har Sinai.]

Recall as well that within that set of of laws we find the mitzva of 'aliya la-regel' - to 'visit God' three times a year:

"Three times a year you shall celebrate for Me... Keep chag ha-matzot... and do not visit me empty-handed... Three times a year all your males shall appear before me... " (23:14-17).

First of all, the very existence of a mitzva to 'be seen by God' implies that there most be some type of sanctuary that would represent Him!  Hence, without some sort of a mikdash, this mitzva of aliya la-regel could not be fulfilled.

However, the next pasuk provides conclusive proof that this sanctuary corresponds to the concept of a Bet-Elokim:

"Your first fruits must be brought to bet Hashem Elokecha - the house of Hashem your God..." (23:19).

This commandment to bring the 'bikkurim' to the Bet Elokim clearly implies that there would have to be some sort of 'sanctuary' that will serve as God's House.

Hence, even Rashi must agree that there would have been a need for a Bet-Elokim even had Bnei Yisrael not sinned at chet ha-egel.

Furthermore, there is no reason why Rashi would have to argue with Ramban's explanation that the primary function of the mikdash was to perpetuate Bnei Yisrael's experience at Har Sinai.

Instead, we posit that the dispute between Rashi and Ramban stems from a less fundamental issue - concerning the need to construct a temporary sanctuary before Bnei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel.

According to Rashi's interpretation, we can assume that God's original intention was for Bnei Yisrael to build a mikdash only after they conquered the Land of Israel.  However, because of their sin, conquest of the Land would now be delayed.  Therefore, God ordered them to build a temporary mikdash [= mishkan] while they remained in the desert.

Ramban would argue that even had Bnei Yisrael not sinned, it would still have been necessary for them to build a temporary mikdash before they embarked on that journey.

Let's attempt to explain why.

The Way it Should Have Been

Rashi's position may be based upon God's original plan that Bnei Yisrael would conquer the land through supernatural, divine intervention (see 23:20-28).  Assisted by God's miracles, Bnei Yisrael would have needed only a very short time to complete at least the first wave of conquest.  Had that actually occurred, there would have been no need to build a temporary mishkan, for within a very short time it would have been possible to build a permanent mikdash instead.

However, in the aftermath of chet ha-egel, the entire situation changes.  As God had removed His Shechina,  Bnei Yisrael must first bring the Shechina back to the camp before they can conquer the Land.  Hence, according to Rashi, the actual process of building the mishkan could be considered a form of 'spiritual rehabilitation'.  Furthermore, the mishkan would now provide Aharon and Bnei Yisrael with the opportunity to offer korbanot and thus achieve atonement for their sin.

One could also suggest that due to chet ha-egel and the 'lower level' of the 'mal'ach' that will lead them into the land (see Shemot 33:1-5 and the shiur on 13 midot), it may now take much longer for Bnei Yisrael to complete the conquest.  Therefore, a temporary mikdash [= mishkan] is required, until a more permanent mikdash can be built.

A Conceptual Juxtaposition

According to this interpretation, we can now suggest (according to Rashi) a beautiful reason for why the Torah places the commandment to build the mishkan out of chronological order:

Even though the mitzva to build the 'temporary' mishkan should have been recorded after the story of chet ha-egel, the Torah intentionally records it earlier - immediately after Ma'amad Har Sinai - to emphasize its thematic connection to that event!  In other words, Rashi, like Ramban, can also understand that the primary function of the mikdash was to perpetuate Ma'amad  Har Sinai.  In fact, had Bnei Yisrael not sinned, the laws of the 'permanent' mikdash may have been recorded at this spot in Chumash.  However, now that a mishkan was needed (due to the events of chet ha-egel), the laws of this temporary mikdash are recorded at this point in Chumash, to emphasize the very same thematic connection that Ramban describes in great detail!

Now that Rashi makes so much sense, why wouldn't Ramban agree?  To answer this question, we must return to our discussion of the differing approaches to 'mukdam u-me'uchar'.

Ramban prefers his principle that Chumash follows chronological order.  Despite the similarities between the mishkan and the story of chet ha-egel (as listed above), they are not convincing enough to warrant, in Ramban's view, a distortion of the order of these parshiot.  Therefore, Ramban maintains that even had it not been for chet ha-egel, there still would have been a need for a temporary mishkan.

In fact, one could suggest a very simple reason for the immediate need of a temporary sanctuary.  As we explained earlier, Bnei Yisrael must still receive many more mitzvot from God.  A mishkan - with the aron and keruvim at its center - is therefore necessary as the medium through which God can convey the remaining mitzvot to Moshe.  Furthermore, once the Shechina descended upon Har Sinai, some sort of vehicle is necessary to 'carry it' with them as they travel from Har Sinai towards Eretz Canaan.

[Accordingly, Ramban explains that most of all the mitzvot recorded in Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamidbar were actually given from the ohel mo'ed (mishkan).  See Ramban Vayikra 1:1 & 7:38.  In regard to Sefer Devarim, see Ramban on 24:1 & 24:12.]

To summarize, the dispute between Rashi and Ramban stems from their different exegetical approaches and pertains only to why a temporary mishkan was necessary.  However, both would agree that a permanent mikdash would have been necessary even had Bnei Yisrael not sinned at chet ha-egel.

In our shiur on Parshat Tetzaveh, we will analyze the internal structure of this unit of chapters 25-31 in order to uncover additional parallels between the mishkan and the events of Ma'amad Har Sinai.