Mystical Understanding


The Tabernacle And The Golden Calf


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The Tabernacle And The Golden Calf

by Yechezkel Gold

Of the five final chapters in the Book of Exodus, four deal exclusively with the Tabernacle. The middle chapter of these five, Ki Tisso, also begins with matters of the Tabernacle but then recounts the incident of the golden calf. This essentially occupies the remainder of the chapter. Placing this extremely significant episode in the midst of the chapters treating the building of the Tabernacle raises difficult problems. Various commentators offer explanations. Scrutiny of their ideas brings the expected wealth of insights into this important issue in Judaism, in many ways crucial to our understanding of Jewish identity and our role in history.

The mystical literature, following the Zohar , understands the Tabernacle and its successor, the Temple in Jerusalem, to be the high point and purpose of history: the abode for the Divine Presence in the nether, created world. Thus renowned cabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, considers the Temple to be a higher level even than the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. In this spirit, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the famed mystical author of the Tanya, considers manifesting the Divine Presence to be the purpose of creation. In his opinion, the world was created in order to experience and reflect God. It can be truly accomplished only through man's deeds in the physical world following God's Commandments. Through contemplation we attain only a pale reflection of the Divine reality contained in performing the Commandments. Thus, unlike the opinion of other commentators which we will cite, the Tabernacle was not at all a concession for to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. The Cabalists relate that its assigned role was central also before the sin of the golden calf.

Rashi comments somewhat differently about the insertion of the golden calf incident into the middle of the chapters dealing with the Tabernacle: "The Torah is not written in chronological sequence. The story of the golden calf precedes the command to build the Tabernacle by many days." A commentator on Rashi wonders why Rashi did not explain the Torah like the Zohar; the first two chapters recount God's command to Moses to build the Tabernacle and precede the incident of the golden calf and the final two chapters tell of Moses informing the Children of Israel of God's command and the Jewish people accomplishing this task only after the episode of the golden calf.

The Tabernacle as a Concession

Perhaps Rashi did not explain the text as the Zohar did because his understanding of the Tabernacle's role was different. Rashi may have viewed the Tabernacle similarly to the opinion of Maimonides. Maimonides considered the sacrifices to have been a concession to the weakness of the Children of Israel. Since they could not manage without a physical representation of their religion, God commanded them to build the Tabernacle and bring sacrifices to Him. Thus, although the important precept that there be no image of God was maintained, the Tabernacle and its ritual concretized the people's belief to allow expression for their needs to serve God in a manner analogous to the nations around them. Perhaps Rashi, too, viewed the Tabernacle as a concession the need for which became evident with the sin of the golden calf.

The idea that Rashi considered the Tabernacle to be a concession as Maimonides did can not easily be justified. On the verse "Your hands prepared the sanctuary of God" which is in the song the People of Israel sang after crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea (some 84 days before the incident of the golden calf), Rashi brings the sages' explanation that the heavenly Temple exists in parallel to the earthly one. It is obvious from this explanation of Rashi that the Divine plan included the Temple before the incident of the sin of the golden calf.

Let us keep in mind Rashi's commentary on the first verse in the Torah. He states that the world was created for the sake of the Torah. Since the episode of the golden calf is as much part of the Torah as is the building of the Tabernacle, it does not make sense to consider these as an unwelcome additions. After all, if the Torah existed before the world was created, then the Tabernacle which is mentioned in the Torah also existed in heaven before the world was created! But rather this teaches us several fundamental truths about spirituality, the Jewish people and our destiny.

If Rashi is unwilling to say that the command to build the Tabernacle preceded the episode of the golden calf but nevertheless holds that building the Tabernacle was part of the original Divine plan, we must seek a third way to view this issue. The events recorded in the Torah about the incident of the golden calf and Moses' efforts on behalf of the People of Israel can direct our investigation.

Recalling the Sin of the Golden Calf

The account of the golden calf commences with a short description of the two Tablets of Law written "with God's finger". Then begins the narrative of the People's uneasiness at Moses' seeming tardiness to return from Mount Sinai. They turned to Aaron demanding that he construct an idol to lead them. Aaron asked them to donate gold and busied himself with it. The golden calf emerged but Aaron deferred the idolatrous fanfare until the next day. When this began, God ordered Moses to descend from the mountain, severely criticizing their actions. Moses beseeched God to spare the People of Israel and God acceded to his request. The narrative continues that "Moses turned and descended the mountain with the two Tablets of the Law in his hand, tablets written on both surfaces". The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that the tablets were truly miraculous: The letters were engraved boring through the entire thickness of the tablets. Nevertheless, they were equally legible from either side, preserving the right to left order of Hebrew writing!

The narrative continues that when Moses saw the golden calf and the wild dancing, he threw the tablets from his hands, breaking them. Then he destroyed the golden calf and dealt with Aaron and the People of Israel. Afterwards Moses returned to Mount Sinai to beg God to forgive the People of Israel. God promises to send an angel to guide the People of Israel because His direct involvement would prove to be too dangerous for them. This is bad news. It means that the People of Israel would no longer have direct contact with God. Their connection must be through an intermediary.

The text highlights this notion by saying that the People of Israel removed from their heads the crowns, which they wore as a sign of special election from the time that they had received from Mount Sinai. The text continues that Moses took the tent - (which Talmud tells us contained the broken tablets in an ark) - and placed it outside of the camp, far from the People of Israel's encampment, and called it the Tent of Meeting, and all who sought God would go to the Tent of Meeting which is outside the encampment.

Understanding the Significance of the Tablets of the Law

Let us examine the significance of this text. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains the import of the miraculous two Tablets of Law. They represent a state where there is no front and back, no inside and outside. That is, the tablets manifested the Divine Presence by dissolving the sense of self and of non self. God was truly experienced thereby as omnipresent. All was self, merged with the Divine. Elsewhere, he states that God's Name came to dwell within the souls of the People of Israel when they were given the Torah. Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch explains that the Divine Presence was manifested within the souls of Israel thereby. Although they were given only the Written Law, they spontaneously knew all the details of God's will. With the destruction of the tablets and of this state of merger with God, the Oral Law's much more detailed explication was needed to know how to perform God's commandments. The second set of Tablets of the Law did have a front and back.

With the first divine Tablets of the Law, the Divine Presence dwelled directly in the Jewish souls. They had merged with the Torah, God's will. This arrangement proved to be unstable. When receiving the Ten Commandments, the People of Israel swooned, their souls departing their bodies. They could not withstand such powerful Divine revelation which overwhelmed their sense of separate existence. As we learned in the Chapter of Yetro, they ask that Moses mediate for them instead of their being a direct connection with God. When they thought that Moses was gone, they frantically grasped for a different intermediary. This brought them to the golden calf.

It may seem puzzling that extreme Divine revelation could bring a person to sin. The sages allude to this idea in Genesis. After completing each individual stage of creation, the text states: " and God saw that it was good ". Regarding the entirety, the verse states: " and God saw everything that He had made and behold, it was very good. The perspective and experience of the entirety (like the one the People of Israel attained when they received the Torah) is called very good. The sages comment: "very" refers to creating the evil inclination. Overly powerful Divine revelation can lead to sin.

Sin and Boundaries

The rationale for this is that sin always means going outside the proper boundaries. When the energy of the moment is contained and expressed in a balanced, apt manner, the Divine import of that energy is authentically and faithfully expressed. Indeed, in mystical literature the sefira of truth, called tif'eress, bespeaks proper balance. Tif'eress means beauty. Thus, when the Divine energy is appropriately contained and subsequently beautifully expressed, the result is truth. Unwillingness to contain the energy and express its Divine import in the worldly manner brings that energy out of bounds: hence sin.

Powerful mystical revelation, which underlies all of experience, can be difficult to accept. Ecstasy can lead to losing control and excesses. Trembling and awe may fill us with dread. Humility can make us feel unworthy. We may feel empty or overwhelmed. Unwillingness or inability to appreciate the mystical significance of these experiences can bring us to sin.

The righteous perceive Divine revelation within all of these experiences. They meekly and correctly see God as Master of all power, beauty, and goodness. Of course, this does not mean that they do not strive in this world. However, the basis of their efforts is prayerful trust in God.

When the primeval serpent tempted Adam and Eve, it was with the image of this Divine energy beyond the bounds of human capacity. Their sin was to eat the forbidden fruit - to bring this too powerful energy into themselves and into the world. They were given only one commandment, to respect the boundaries between God and themselves. To know their limits. By transgressing, they lost their spiritual balance, the delicate beauty of the Garden of Eden.

The mystical literature explains that integrating this overly powerful Divine energy which had been brought into the world became the mission of mankind: to bring the world back to God, to contain and express this heightened level of Divinity. Mankind shirked this mission until Abraham undertook it for himself and his progeny until the end of history. In order to equip Abraham's descendants, the People of Israel, for this task God gave them the Torah. Concomitantly, He removed the serpent's impurity, and some remnant of that balanced, true spiritual appreciation remains in the souls despite the sin of the golden calf.

Since that time, the Jewish people's historical mission has been to deal with a greater, more challenging and more disturbing reality, beyond prosaic boundaries. This reality may be expressed internally, in powerful mystical or intellectual search, in passionate idealism, and in the urgent quest and struggle for meaning. It may be expressed externally, in anti-Semitism and oppressive circumstances. Our mission is to find and bring God into our reality, to experience the Divine in our circumstances and to reflect the Godly in our actions. This entails cultivating wisdom and pleasant human qualities as well as making contributions toward mankind's well being. The greater challenge we have endured through the generations may account for corresponding results.

Revealing G-d's Program

The episode of the golden calf in many ways recreated the circumstances of Adams' sin, and its aftermath which lead to constructing the Tabernacle, showed God's program as revealed to Moses for rectifying it. The sin demonstrated that overly intimate, frankly mystical contact with the Divine Light spontaneously expressed from within the soul, as symbolized by the miraculous two Tablets of Law, was an experience too powerful for the People of Israel to properly contain and express.

The first level of antidote was to render God's will purely objective and independent of people's volition. Moses shattered the Tablets of Law which embodied the spontaneous revelation of God's will the soul. Instead, the Divine teachings could become an objective code to which the People of Israel must strictly adhere without personal connection to it. This was represented by the Tent of Meeting containing the ark and the Tablets of the Law which resided outside the encampment of the People of Israel. To receive the Divine teachings people needed to leave their familiar territory and depart to a distant locale. Rather than residing within their souls the Divine wisdom was in and external, formal structure, figuratively as well as literally.

This arrangement had drawbacks as well. Rashi comments about this: "The homiletic interpretation of this is that God spoke to Moses that he should return to the camp. He said to him: I am angry and you are angry. If so, who will draw them close?" Having a strict, exclusively explicit external standard may ensure compliance with God's will, but it will be superficial. Obedience to God's will makes us his agents for doing good but would not refine the People of Israel's personalities and human qualities. We would be operating out of fear without really caring about what we are doing. Most likely, this would lead to lack of sensitivity to issues.

The angel which God said he would send as His representative, an external intermediary agent rather than direct connection to God and personal sensitivity to the spiritual issues of life, was embodied in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. The People of Israel themselves lost their special election thereby; rather than personal involvement and sincere commitment to accomplishing the Divine plan, they would have become mere instruments. They removed the crowns of election which they received at Mount Sinai when they received the Torah.

Further Revelations of G-d Himself

The next scriptural episode, the dialogue between God and Moses, directly addresses this predicament. On the one hand, when the Divine Light dwells directly within the souls, the too great intensity and intimacy can lead to sin. On the other hand, an externally imposed standard leads to superficial formality and not caring. Resolving this predicament was an awesome accomplishment, a profound insight into the intrinsic structure of spirituality and ethics as well as of human psychological and spiritual health.

Moses requested two matters simultaneously. He asked to know God's ways and also that God's "visage", which Rashi interprets to mean the angel, should depart and God should guide the People of Israel directly. This would result in Israel becoming again the chosen people. Moses was requesting to have the advantages of both approaches, both direct manifestation of the Divine within the soul and an explicit standard for spiritual behavior. God acceded to his request. Realizing that he had found a great favor in God's eyes, Moses now made a further request: to behold God's own glory. From the text we understand that Moses asked to experience a still more inner aspect of Divine manifestation. God answered that what Moses asked was impossible for a human being to attain. Instead, however, He revealed to Moses the thirteen attributes of mercy, a still deeper, more sublime level than what Moses had experienced before.

The thirteen attributes of mercy revealed God as compassionate and kind, patient with our faults and ever mindful of the merits and good deeds we and our forbearers have accumulated. Perhaps one could say in other words that Moses came to perceive God through prophecy as tolerant of our faults because of the overriding good that we and our people do. This sublime perspective suggests on the one hand an intimate connection and involvement with the Jewish people, our we intrinsic goodness and the good that we do, and on the other hand a certain distance from our immediate acts and moral status which allows tolerance for our faults because of our potential for returning to God and doing His will.

The thirteen attributes of mercy were revealed on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. According to Rashi, only afterwards did God command Moses to build the Tabernacle. We understand that this sublime level of compassion and patient tolerance is necessary for the Divine Presence to dwell stably in an imperfect world. Indeed, the world's very imperfection indicates its sublime source.

Centrality of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle represented a new way for the Divine Presence to dwell among the People of Israel. It had the advantages of both approaches to connection with the Divine. On the one hand, there was an explicit, separate structure which manifested the Divine Presence, thereby greatly reducing uncertainty and the likelihood of sin. On the other hand, unlike the Tent of Meeting the Tabernacle was built in the very center of the Jewish camp, intimately involved and central to their lives and personal affairs.

In the same manner, the Divine Presence dwells at the very core of a person's being, an objective presence profoundly and intimately connected to his or her deepest hopes and most fervent desires. Like the Tabernacle, the soul, where the Divine Presence dwells within us, is an objective, separate reality. It is not egocentric or selfish, but fair, open minded and good, committed to the well-being, spiritual and material, of all. The manifestation of the Divine within us has the distance, tolerance and compassion revealed in the 13 attributes of mercy. Its true form is Torah, God-given and carefully and exquisitely studied, checked and elucidated by the wisdom of scholars for over three millennia. Like the Tabernacle, the soul is also our very center, the focus of all that we truly care about. In comparison, worldly and bodily passions pale.

This spiritual form, the objective Divine Presence dwelling stable at the very center of the People of Israel's hopes and caring, was envisioned long before the episode of the golden calf. The Tabernacle embodied this spiritual form. The need for and significance of this particular configuration however did not become clear until the episode of the golden calf and its aftermath. Rashi opined accordingly that the commandment to build the Tabernacle came only later.

Our building the internal Tabernacle as a place for the Divine Presence to dwell within each individual is our own, still somewhat subjective preparation for God's true, objective manifestation in the world, the Temple. May we be privileged to see it soon!


from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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