One of the most perplexing problems we encounter when studying the Book of Exodus is the style of presentation of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Four parashot are dedicated to the construction of the Tabernacle - Terumah, Tetsaveh, Vayaqhel and Pequde. The first two deal with Hashem's instructions regarding the design of the Mishkan, its vessels and the Priestly vestments. The second pair discuss the fulfillment of these commandments by the Children of Israel.
Because of their common theme, we might expect these two "sets" of parashot to appear consecutively in the Torah. Instead, the thematic flow of the parashot is "interrupted" after Parashat Tetsaveh by the dramatic narratives in Parashat Ki Tissa. Why does the Torah structure its presentation of the Mishkan in such an unusual manner?
Our difficulty is complicated even further by the traditional view - accepted by Rashi and Seforno, among others - that the entire concept of the Mishkan was not actually introduced to Moshe until after the sin of the Golden Calf, i.e., after Parashat Ki Tissa. Logically, then, it would have made sense for the Torah to have placed all four of the relevant Parashot after Ki Tissa, rather than starting the discussion of the Mishkan with Terumah and Tetsaveh only to be sidetracked by the story of the Calf.
I believe that a "bird's eye" view of the structure of the past five Parashot, beginning with the end of Mishpatim, can offer us a compelling explanation for why the discussion of the Mishkan is divided up the way it is. Near the end of Parashat Mishpatim, a rather bizarre incident occurs that is only briefly described in the text:
"And Moses and Aaron went up; Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel; and beneath His feet was like the work of sapphire stone and like the essence of the heavens in purity. Yet against the nobles of Israel He did not strike; and they beheld God, and ate and drank."
The Rambam, in the Moreh Nevuchim, explains the deeper significance of this vision:
But the Nobles of the Children of Israel were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet.," etc., and not merely, "And they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal - a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except for Nadav and Avihu who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the Congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition.
In the Rambam's view, as a result of the revelation at Sinai, the elders overestimated their closeness to God and wound up reaching distorted conclusions about His nature. They attempted to translate Divinity into concrete terms, into a form they could relate to even in the midst of eating and drinking. The possibility that the Revelation might lead to this kind of mistake was anticipated by God from the outset. Immediately after the event, He told Moshe:
"...So shall you say to the Children of Israel - 'You have seen that I spoke to you from the fire. Do not make anything with Me; gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make."
This concept was emphasized by Moshe when he recounted the experience at Sinai to the generation that was preparing to enter the land:
"You heard the sound of a voice, but you saw no picture - only a voice. Lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a graven image..."
Returning to the vision of the Elders at the end of Parashat Mishpatim, we must ask ourselves a simple question: Is it mere coincidence that, a couple of Parashot later, we read:
"Get up and make us gods that will go before us...And they got up in the morning, and they sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they got up to engage in revelry."
The sin of the Golden Calf includes the same basic elements we observed in the vision of the elders. The Jews felt the need to create a tangible representation of God's presence, and they celebrated their newfound "intimacy" with God in a similar manner: through eating, drinking and partying.
Taking a step back and looking at the progression the Torah displays to us, we notice a fascinating pattern in the text. The spiritual high point of Revelation and the solemnization of the covenant is punctuated by the distorted vision of the Elders. Immediately after the transgression, Moshe is summoned to Mount Sinai as a sign of reconciliation and the Laws of the Mishkan are presented.
Moshe's period of separation on the Mountain - the high point of his prophetic experience - is similarly interrupted by the incident with the Golden Calf. The situation is resolved through the return of Moshe to Mount Sinai for a second stint of forty days and forty nights. After rapproachment is achieved, the Mishkan is finally constructed.
By tying both the vision of the Elders and the idolatrous worship of the nation to the Mishkan, the Torah intimates that there is a conceptual connection between the mistake of the leaders and the grave error of the people. The relatively minor metaphysical distortion in the Elder's conception of God predisposed them - and the people of Israel, who depended upon them for spiritual guidance - to fall into the disastrous trap of outright idol worship.
The desire to make God something tangible, present in a subtle form in the minds of the wise elders, developed into a full blown, irrepressible obsession among the people. The primitive impulse to "see God" derived from the Israelites' attachment to the realm of the physical in general; hence the association between idolatrous tendencies and "eating and drinking" - the indulgement in pleasures of the body - in both cases.
The Rambam hints to these issues himself in his subsequent remarks about the vision of the Elders:
If such was the case with them, how much more it is incumbent upon us who are inferior, and on those who are below us, to persevere in perfecting our knowledge of the elements, and in rightly understanding the preliminaries that purify the mind from the defilement of error...The Nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception were, through this cause, also misled in their actions; for in consequence of their confused perception, they gave way to bodily cravings....
We can now appreciate that the monumental sin of the Golden Calf was, in reality, a direct result of the intellectual immodesty and spiritual imperfection of the Elders. In the end, the seemingly minor errors of the leaders exterted a major influence on the perspective of the Jews and brought them quite literally to the brink of destruction.
What is the connection between these sinful thoughts and actions and the eventual construction of the Tabernacle? The Mishkan, according to many commentators, is designed to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. A simple consideration of its significance reveals how it accomplishes this objective. The Mishkan serves as a concrete reflection of God's presence among the Jewish people, while categorically forbidding any representation of Hashem Himself. It satisfies the human need for concreteness but disallows the attribution of physicality to the Creator proper. In this sense, it functions as a compromise between the emotional attraction to idolatry on the one hand and fidelity to the Jewish concept of God on the other.
By linking the respective mistakes of the Elders and the Nation to the Mishkan, the Torah shows us exactly how the institution of the Sanctuary helped to address the psychological need for a tangible representation of the Divine Presence. After the sin of the Elders, the Laws of the Mishkan were detailed. Just as their mistake existed only in the realm of the intellectual, so to did its "remedy", the Tabernacle, come into existence intellectually, in the form of commandments and instructions.
However, the sin of the Golden Calf took place in the realm of action - the Jews carried the philosophical error of the Elders to its ultimate conclusion, and physically engaged in idolatry. As such, it is followed up with the actual construction of the Mishkan; that is, the concrete implementation of its abstract laws and guidelines, the realization of its design in the material world.
Of course, the more general lesson here cannot be overlooked. Ideas and concepts are much more powerful than we tend to assume. An incorrect notion is not a harmless triviality; it can be a dangerous thing. The way we think about God, the world and ourselves can have the effect of tainting or even derailing our personal, communal and religious development. Wrongheaded teachers and leaders pose an especially serious threat, because the influence they exert on their followers is extraordinarily potent and can lead to destructive consequences of major proportions.
Sadly, we need not look too far to find contemporary examples of such phenomena in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts.