Parshat Trumah -
The Mishkan: Before or After Chet Ha'Egel?

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

Had it not been for Chet Ha'Egel, 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 God commanded Bnei Yisrael to build the Mishkan, 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'meuchar ba'Torah" (chronological order in Chumash).

Introduction - Four Units
To understand the source of this controversy between Rashi and Ramban, we must first delineate the four distinct units of the last half of Sefer Shmot. In last week's shiur, we defined and discussed the first of these four units - chapters 19-24, better known as Ma'amad Har Sinai. (See Board #1.)

Chapters 25-31 [i.e. Parshiot Trumah and Tezaveh, and the first half of Ki-Tisa] also form a distinct unit, which relates exclusively to God's commandment to build the Mishkan. (See Board #2.)

Similarly, chapters 32-34 [the second half of Ki-Tisa] also form an independent unit, as they describe the events surrounding the incident of Chet Ha'Egel, continuing the narrative that left off after the first unit. (See Board #3.)

Lastly, chapters 35-40 [Parshiot Va'yakhel/Pekudei] make up the sefer's finale, describing the Mishkan's actual construction and serving as a logical continuation of the commandment that appeared in the second unit. (See Board #4.)

Using Board #5, we can view more succinctly Rashi's position that God ordered the Mishkan's construction only after Chet Ha'Egel (see Rashi on 31:18). Rashi simply takes the entire unit 'B' and places it after 'C'. In contrast, Ramban argues that Chumash records these parshiot in their proper chronological order [A-B-C-D]. (See Board #4.) 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 ascends Har Sinai to receive the "luchot, torah, and mitzvah" (see 24:12). As we know, the luchot are the tablets upon which God inscribes the Ten Commandments. It is unclear, however, to what the words torah and mitzvah refer. [Note how many different opinions are found among the commentators on 24:12!]

Board #4 may provide a simple answer. If we simply follow the narrative in order, then the torah and mitzvah mentioned in 24:12, the end of Unit A, must be Unit B!

In other words, 24:12-18 tells us that Moshe ascends Har Sinai to receive the torah and mitzvah, 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, considering that Moshe ascends Har Sinai to receive the luchot that will be placed in the aron, it is only logical that the torah and mitzvah refer to the laws of the Mishkan (Unit B), which serves as the 'housing' for the aron!

Finally, considering that God informs Moshe that He will convey His mitzvot to Moshe from the keruvim once the Mishkan is assembled (see 25:21-22), it stands to reason that the laws of the Mishkan are the first and only set of mitzvot transmitted to Moshe during those forty days, and that the rest of the mitzvot were transmitted through the keruvim.

Therefore, if we follow the strict chronological order of Chumash, Moshe ascends Har Sinai for the first forty days for one plain and simple purpose: to receive the luchot and those mitzvot involving the building of the Mishkan, which will house the luchot.

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

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 25:2) 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 mitzvah 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. On top of the aron are the keruvim, from where God will now convey to Moshe the remaining mitzvot. This explains not only why the Mishkan follows Har Sinai, but also why this unit opens specifically with the laws regarding the aron and keruvim.

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 Milah 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 'b'nistar' [in a more hidden manner, in contrast to Har Sinai]..." (see Ramban 25:1)
Rashi's Approach
Despite the beauty and attraction of Ramban's shita, Rashi claims exactly the opposite - that the commandment to build the Mishkan came after, and because of, Chet Ha'Egel. Thus, according to Rashi, the parshiot are presented out of chronological order. Rashi goes even further, claiming that during the first forty days Moshe received all the mitzvot of the Torah, except of course the laws of the Mishkan!

[In other words, using Board #5, the chronological order would be A-C-B-D; or, using our computer mashal - WYSIWYDG - What You See Is What You Don't Get!]

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 that he did receive at this time?! What leads Rashi to this conclusion?

To answer this question, we must first explain the exegetical principle of "ein mukdam u'meuchar 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 always assumes 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'meuchar" implies that when Moshe received the Torah in its final form in the fortieth year (see Devarim 31:25-26), its "parshiot" were organized according to theme, and not necessarily in chronological order. In doing so, the Torah conveys its message not only by the content of each "parshia," but also by intentionally juxtaposing certain parshiot.

[See Chizkuni on Shmot 34:32 for this precise explanation.]

Rashi follows this approach. He 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'muchar," 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:

Rashi therefore explains that the commandment to build the Mishkan came after Chet Ha'Egel (during Moshe's last forty days on Har Sinai), 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.]

L'chat'chila or B'di'avad?
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 "l'chatchila" [ideal]. In other words, even had Chet Ha'Egel never occurred, it would have been desirable for Bnei Yisrael to have a Mishkan, a physical representation of God's presence.

How about Rashi? Can we infer from his interpretation that the Mishkan is "b'di'avad" [a compromise]? In other words, had it not been for Chet Ha'Egel, would there never have been a mitzvah to build a Mikdash? Is it only in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the egel that God realizes the people's need for a physical representation?

Despite the temptation of this conclusion, we will prove that even according to Rashi 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:

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. We posit that both Rashi and Ramban must agree that the concept of a Sanctuary, a symbol of God's Shchina (the divine presence) dwelling with Bnei Yisrael, is "l'chatchila" 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 mizbayach in Bet-El and "calls out in God's Name" (see 12:8 and 13:4). Later, at this same site, Yaakov Avinu awakens from his dream and exclaims:

"Alas, this is the site for a Bet Elokim, for it is the gate to the heavens." (Breishit 28:17)
Yaakov then erects a "matzeyva" (monument) and vows that upon his return to Canaan he will establish the site of his "matzeyva" as a Bet Elokim - a House for God. [See Breishit 28:17-22.]

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

[Even in "shirat ha'yam," as Bnei Yisrael cross the Red Sea, they are already singing of their goal to institute a Mikdash immediately upon their arrival in the land. See Shmot 15:17: "t'viyamo ... Mikdash, Hashem kon'nu yodecha..." ]

Parshat Mishpatim provides conclusive proof that the basic concept of a Bet Elokim is totally unrelated to the events of Chet Ha'Egel. [Recall that even Rashi agrees that Parshat Mishpatim was given during the first forty days, before Chet Ha'Egel.]

Towards the end of Parshat Mishpatim, we find the mitzvah of "aliyah 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)
Without some type of sanctuary representing God, this mitzvah of "aliyah l'regel" could not be fulfilled!

The next pasuk provides final 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)
Based on the above analysis, even Rashi must agree that the need for a Bet Elokim has nothing to do with Chet Ha'Egel. Therefore, there is no reason for Rashi not to accept Ramban's explanation of the primary purpose of the Mishkan/Mikdash is its function as a physical symbol of God's presence, through which Bnei Yisrael can relive their experience at Har Sinai.

Instead, their dispute over when God issued the command to build the Mishkan relates to a less fundamental question, concerning the need for a temporary sanctuary before they enter Eretz Canaan.

According to Rashi, had Bnei Yisrael not sinned at Chet Ha'Egel, there would have been no reason to build a temporary Mishkan in the desert. Instead, Bnei Yisrael could have simply waited a few more months and built a permanent Mikdash as soon as they conquered the Land. Ramban would argue that even had Bnei Yisrael not sinned, they would have still required a "temporary Mikdash." Let's explain.

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.

After Chet Ha'Egel, however, the entire situation changes as God removes His Shchina from the camp. Bnei Yisrael must first bring the Shchina 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 "spiritual rehabilitation" project. Furthermore, it provides Aharon and Bnei Yisrael with the opportunity to build a sanctuary where they can 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 "malach" that will lead them into the land (see Shmot 33:1-5 and 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 understand why (according to Rashi) the Torah places the commandment to build the Mishkan out of chronological order. (See Board #4.) Even though the mitzvah to build the Mishkan should have been recorded after the story of Chet Ha'Egel, the Torah intentionally records it earlier - immediately after Ma'amad Har Sinai - in order to emphasize the conceptual connection between Matan Torah and the Mishkan/Mikdash, as explained by Ramban. Hence, Rashi can reach the exact same conclusion as Ramban regarding the importance of a Mikdash - "l'chatchila"!

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

Ramban prefers his principle that Chumash follows chronological order. Despite the similarities between the Mishkan and egel 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 Shchina 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 all the mitzvot recorded in Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamidbar were actually given from the Ohel Moed (Mishkan). See Ramban Vayikra 1:1 and 7:38. In regard to Sefer Devarim, see Ramban on 24:1 and 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 if Bnei Yisrael had not sinned at Chet Ha'Egel.

Our shiur on Parshat Tezaveh 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. Till then,

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
A. See Seforno on Shmot 20:21 and 31:18. Relate this shita to the concepts developed in this week's shiur.

B. Read Devarim chapter 12. Note the repeated use of the phrase "ha'makom asher yivchar Hashem" and its context. C. Although the Rambam did not write a commentary on Chumash, we can infer his understanding of certain psukim based on his psak halacha in Mishne Torah.

The opening Rambam in Hilchot Beit Ha'bchira (Sefer Avodah) defines the source of the commandment to build a Mikdash (see 1:1). Read that Rambam (and, if you have time, the first five halachot).

TSC Home