The Rabbis, however, call foul. They wonder: how did this nation, mere days past the Revelation at Sinai, lose the sense of holiness and unity that they had achieved when they received the Torah? So much so that we need to spend half of a book of the Bible detailing all of the minutiae of the Mishkan, its equipment, the Priestly garments, its procedures, and so forth. Isn’t this taking a spiritual step backwards; returning to a more iconographic and less sophisticated form of worship rather than the Divine ideal? Rashi, among others, suggests that the sin of the Golden Calf was sufficient to knock Israel from their spiritual pedestal, and, having proven that they can’t remain fully faithful to G-d without symbolic or ritual assistance. The construction of the Mishkan was a reaction to that reality.
Except that the Golden Calf hasn’t happened yet. Or has it? It’s a well-known standard that the Torah does not necessarily work in chronological order. We can tell that this narrative has been jiggered for literary and dramatic effect. The entire Revelation saga has been divided into three disconnected units, with legislation in between. Clearly, G-d calling the people, revealing the Torah, delivering the tablets, the Golden Calf, the aftermath, and the granting of the replacement set could be done in one fell swoop. As we have learned, however, the Torah tweaks the timing and presentation of the story so that certain educational juxtapositions may occur: The dynamic relationship between doing and believing. Revelation vs. Inspiration. Shedding the slave mentality in favor of creating a caring community in the Divine image. It would be a fun exercise to rearrange these narrative and legislative puzzle pieces into different orders to see what the overall message would be with each attempt. In its traditional structure, I find a few useful tools—and lessons.
By breaking up the story, each subpart of the narrative becomes a miniature cause/effect or action/reaction vignette. This allows us to glean, and the Rabbis to expound upon, numerous little connections which we might not have otherwise made. It gives us a chance to analyze the brushstrokes as well as stepping back to admire the painting.
We’ve known since Creation that G-d is an improvisor. Time and time again, we’ve seen radical do-overs, changes in tack, the implementation of alternate strategies. This arc is no different, except that teaching Israel that “try, try again” is an acceptable strategy when you fall short, is part of their fundamental education.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this confusion?
· Holiness can reside anywhere; provided it is bidden and invited.
· How you tell the story can be just as important as the story itself.
· The first place to consider the effects of your words and actions is in the moment.
· It is still important, however, to look at the big picture.
· It is in the image of G-d to have something not come off the way you planned, and then to try and fix it, provided you are doing so for the right reasons.
And the beauty of Torah is that next year, we will shuffle the cards again, and learn something completely new.Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen