Friday, March 16, 2007

A Short Term Rental for G-d?

It is certainly a great blessing to study Torah as a child, but there is a down side.

Familiarity is blinding, and sometimes we are oblivious to the most obvious of problems. Fortunately, some people who study Torah all their lives still manage to look at it anew every day. While the question might not have occurred to most of us, the building of the Mishkan in the desert is an anomaly that has long disturbed Biblical commentators.

The Ralbag (1288-1344) asked the question directly:

It would have been appropriate for the mitzvah [of building a sanctuary] to go into effect [when the Jews arrive] at the place that G-d has chosen (i.e., Jerusalem), and not at some random location [in the desert]…
The Torah makes this point in parshat Re’eh, “Now you have not yet come to the resting place and hereditary land that G-d your Lord is giving you. But you shall cross the Jordan… and there will be a site that G-d will choose as the place for His Name to rest there” (Devarim 12:9-11).
Why build a Mishkan in the desert? What’s the rush? Can’t G-d wait until we get to Jerusalem and build the real thing on the Temple Mount? Is a portable, collapsible sanctuary really appropriate for the King of Kings?

R. Yaakov Kaminetzky (d. 1986) asks a related question. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) tells us that upon entry into the land of Israel, the Jews have three responsibilities: To appoint a king, to destroy Amalek and to build a Temple. The Temple is the last item on the list. So why is G-d commanding them to build a Mishkan now?

Last week we mentioned the great chronology debate: What came first – the command to build the Mishkan or the Sin of the Golden Calf? Despite the fact the mitzvah of the Mishkan is the exclusive topic for over two whole parshiot before the Golden Calf appears, Rashi maintains that the Calf was first. This comes as a bit of a surprise; Rashi has a long established career of sticking to the “P’shat,” the straightforward meaning of the text. Why would he change around the order for no apparent reason?

R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1525) served as chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and authored a voluminous supercommentary on Rashi known simply as the “Mizrachi.” He posits a compelling justification for Rashi’s unexpected position.

It is impossible to say that G-d’s command to Moshe to build a Mishkan predated the Golden Calf [as the order of the parshiot would indicate]... If that were true, how would Moshe know if G-d still wanted the Jews to build a Mishkan [after the sin]? … Maybe G-d only agreed to grant them a second set of Tablets… for the purpose of maintaining Judaism. After they converted [at Sinai] and accepted the yoke of Torah and mitzvot G-d could not reject them. Even if the Jews did revert to [pagan] behavior, they would have the same status as Jews who “convert” to Christianity, i.e. they remain completely Jewish as the Talmud states. But to [go so far as to] build the Mishkan [for G-d] to dwell among them – an extra expression of love – that not!
…How could Moshe infer from the fact that G-d pardoned the Jews on Yom Kippur [and spared them from destruction] that the Mishkan project was still on? We must therefore say that G-d first commanded Moshe to construct a Mishkan only after the Sin of the Golden Calf…
The Mizrachi’s answer is so good, those who disagree with Rashi now have some explaining to do. The Ramban, for example, takes the position that the original mitzvah to build a Mishkan predated the Calf – as the text itself would indicate (Ramban to Shemot 35:1). How did Moshe know that G-d was still interested in a sanctuary after the sin? The answer is that if not for the Golden Calf, the Mishkan makes no sense at all.

When G-d first told Moshe about the Mishkan, Moshe was confused. Build a sanctuary out here in the desert? Why? But after the Golden Calf, Moshe understood. Under normal conditions a Mishkan would not be necessary, to say the least. Inappropriate or even disrespectful might be a more accurate description. However, aware that a Golden Calf was in the cards, G-d arranged for a Mishkan. It’s function? To let the people know that G-d loves them even after they sin.

“The Mishkan of Testimony” (Shemot 38:21) – A testimony to the Israelites that G-d had pardoned them for the Sin of the Golden Calf. After all, now His Shechinah was resting in their midst!

Rashi to 38:21

After the Golden Calf, G-d throws propriety to the wind and just moves right in. Forget Jerusalem, says G-d. I want to be with you today.

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