Friday, March 9, 2007

Building on Golden Ash

After choosing His people at the Exodus and marrying them at Sinai, G-d is ready to move in. The Jews were planning a magnificent terrestrial palace for their king right in the center of the community, but this week the construction schedule is postponed indefinitely. No, it’s not bad weather or a union strike. In Ki Tisa, the Jews build a Golden Calf.

It’s a long, sad story. In the aftermath of this sin, the Tablets are smashed, a brother against brother purge leaves thousands dead, and the nation is nearly annihilated by a plague of G-d’s wrath. In the end, with the help of Moshe’s prayers, G-d forgives. He grants the nation a second set of Tablets and He agrees to return to dwell amongst His people. After an eighty-day hiatus, the construction of the Mishkan moves forward.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but there is an important Midrashic teaching that must not be forgotten. Although the mitzvah to build the Mishkan was commanded before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan functions as an atonement for it. “Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of the calf” (Midrash Tanchuma 8). In this view, the Mishkan is not merely a sanctuary for G-d, but it is the medium which enables G-d’s presence to return after the Golden Calf fiasco.

Rashi (cf. 31:18, 33:11) takes things one-step further. Evoking the principle that Torah events are not necessarily organized in chronological order, Rashi is of the opinion that the mitzvah to build a Mishkan was actually first presented after the Golden Calf – apparently in reaction to the sin. (The question of which came first, the calf or the Mishkan, is an old debate recorded in many Midrashim.)

“Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of the calf.” This is a fascinating concept. The idea is that a mitzvah to donate gold in the service of G-d will rectify the donating of gold for sin. This might explain why donations for the Mishkan were not mandatory (cf. Shemot 25:2). Only a voluntary donation for a holy purpose could function to counterbalance the voluntary donations for the idolatrous calf. There was, however, one mandatory collection for the Mishkan and it appears at the beginning of this week’s parsha. It’s the collection of a silver half Shekel. This mitzvah is presented in a most mysterious way, as if the half Shekel somehow provides divine protection and atonement. Let’s read the verses carefully.
G-d said to Moshe saying, “When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, every man shall give G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them. Everyone included in the census must give a half Shekel… The rich may not give more and the poor may not give less…
You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan. It will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before G-d to atone for your souls.
Shemot 30:11-13,15-16
This is the first time we have a mitzvah to count the Jews. It works like this: Instead of counting the people directly, a half Shekel coin is taken from each person – the rich can’t give more and the poor can’t give less – and then the coins are counted.

What is the meaning of this mitzvah? Since when do the minutia of good government become Biblical commands? What are we atoning for? And what is this business about a plague? There is something else going on here and Rashi tells us what it is:

These verses teach us that [the Jews] were commanded to take this census when the collection for the Mishkan began after the sin of the Golden Calf. This is because a plague had started, as the verse states, “Then G-d struck the people with a plague because they had made the calf…” (Shemot 32:35).
The analogy is to a flock of sheep, beloved by its owner, which is hit by a plague. When it is over, the owner makes a request of his shepherd. “Please count my sheep and learn how many are left.” This [request] reveals his love.

It’s not about the number. G-d does not need us to tell Him how many Jews there are. What G-d wants is for us to understand that He loves every single Jew – even after the sin of the Golden Calf.

What do we do with all the money? Well, the verse tells us to use it for the Mishkan. “You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan” (ibid). But the Talmud (Megillah 29b) is more specific. The Talmud tells us that these half Shekel coins were melted down and forged into the silver bases which supported the Mishkan’s walls (cf. Shemot 26:19).

The census after the Golden Calf, which served to express G-d’s love for every Jew, forms the foundation of the Mishkan, a sanctuary designed for G-d’s presence in the midst of a nation burdened by sin. This is because it is our awareness of G-d’s infinite love that drives repentance and transforms the nation into a vessel for the Shechinah. The Torah means exactly what it says:
You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan. It will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before G-d to atone for your souls.
Could we come up with a better foundation for G-d’s house?

1 comment:

  1. Nosson Zeev Grossman3/12/2007 11:56 AM

    It seems to be that a common issue running through the ideas you mentioned is the ability or inability to understand through abstraction.

    An inability to relate to Hashem as the most real but most abstract being led to their desire for something more concrete to concentrate on- the Aigel.

    In response, they are told to build the Mishkan which is a compromise in the sense that we can relate to something physical from which try to abstract upwards towards Hashem.

    Indeed that idea of the Mishkan as a Olam Katan is driving at the same idea from the other end- the Mishkan is an abstraction of the world as a whole. (See Toras HaOlah)

    The shekel as well is an attempt to abstract the person through a representation. Indeed, it is only through abstaction to a core idea of identity that we are able to start the process towards achdus.(Perhaps this is what Chazal were expressing in their idea of a shekel of fire.)

    Finally, the chet of Adam HaRishon, according to my reading of the Ramchal and the Rambam is that is was an inability to abstract the idea of the false and the need to deal with it on a more concrete level, the consequence of which we deal with today. Har Sinai was intended as a tikkun for that shortcoming.

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