by Daniel Pinner
"Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, so they will take for Me an offering; from every man whose heart inspires him, you will take My offering--and they shall make a Sanctuary for Me" (Exodus 25:1-8).
The Ramban graphically explains the significance of the Mishkan: "Ever since Hashem had spoken the Ten Commandments to Israel face to face--and Israel had accepted upon themselves to do all that He would command them through Moshe, He thereby forged His covenant with them and they henceforth became His nation and He, their G-d--So now that they were holy, they were worthy of having a Sanctuary through which His Shekhinah would be infused among them--And the basis of the Mishkan is that the glory that had resided upon Mount Sinai would now be concealed within it. And just as it says, 'Hashem‚s glory resided on Mount Sinai‚' (Exodus 24:16), and 'Then Hashem our G-d showed us His glory and His greatness‚' (Deuteronomy 5:21), so too does it say regarding the Mishkan, 'And Hashem‚s glory filled the Mishkan‚' (Exodus 40:34). And the glory that had appeared to them at Mount Sinai was constantly with Israel in the Mishkan" (Ramban, Commentary to Exodus 25:2).
According to the simple reading of the Torah, this series of commandments to prepare for building the Mishkan happened while Moshe was on the top of Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:15-18; 31:18). But counter-intuitively, Rashi states categorically that this happened after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32-33): "The Torah does not necessarily follow chronological order ['eyn mukdam u-me‚uchar ba-Torah‚ ' Pesachim 6b]. The sin of the golden calf happened long before the command to construct the Mishkan: the Tablets of stone were smashed on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and G-d was conciliated with Israel on Yom Kippur; and the following day they began collecting the voluntary donations for the Mishkan, which was finally erected on the first of Nissan" (Rashi on Exodus 31:18, based upon Midrash Tanhuma, Terumah 8; compare Pikudey 11).
Two important questions arise from this Midrashic understanding of the Torah‚s chronology: Why did the Torah place this episode out of its chronological sequence? And why did G-d command the building of the Mishkan immediately after the sin of the golden calf?
Placing this episode immediately after Parashat Mishpatim teaches the indivisibility of all aspects of Jewish life: the Torah segues seamlessly from the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-14 and their immediate aftermath (verses 15-23) into the civil laws of 21:1-11, into the criminal laws of 21:12-22:17, from there to the religious laws (i.e. between man and G-d) of 22:18-30, back again to the civil laws of 23:1-9, the religious laws of 23:10-33, and finally to the building of the Mishkan. Keeping Shabbat, being honest in business, observing the Festivals and the Shmitta year, and building the Mishkan -- in later generations, the Beit ha-Mikdash -- are all equally mitzvot. By placing this passage here and not later on when it actually happened, the Torah drives this lesson home.
Rabbeinu Bechayye offers another reason for the Torah describing the preparations for the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf: "The Torah--deliberately put [the narrative of] the Mishkan, which epitomises atonement, before the narrative of the sin, because God‚s way is to create the cure before the disease. This is what our sages meant when they said, --G-d never smites Israel without first having created the cure, as the prophet (Hosea 7:1) says: 'When I have a cure for Israel, Ephraim's sin is revealed' (Megillah 13b)".
And by commanding the building of the Mishkan immediately after the sin of the golden calf, G-d warns us against being misled by the false claim that we cannot re-build the Holy Temple because we are not on a high enough spiritual level. The exact opposite is true! "G-d said: Let the gold of the Mishkan come to atone for the gold with which the calf was made" (Tanhuma, Terumah 8). And commenting on the words "and thus shall you do" (Exodus 25:9), the Sforno explains: "In order that I may dwell in your midst, to speak with you and to accept Israel‚s prayers and sacrifices; not how it had previously been before the golden calf, when He had said --In every place that I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you‚ (Exodus 20:21)". It was precisely because of our spiritual fall in sinning with the golden calf that the Mishkan became necessary; and by extension, it is precisely because today we are on a low level spiritually that the Holy Temple is crucial.
The purpose of the Mishkan, and in later generations the Holy Temple, is (in the words of the Pesach Haggadah) "to atone for all or sins." For close on 2,000 years in exile we were forcibly prevented from re-building the Holy Temple; today we have no excuse. And for certain, the claim that we are not on a high enough level today to re-build the Holy Temple is against all that the episode of the Mishkan in the desert comes to teach us.