Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
This week's parashah, Terumah, begins the section where God gives Moses the instructions on how to build the Mishkan/Dwelling Place - the portable sanctuary that will follow the people through the desert.
It seems strange that following the spiritual high of the Revelation at Sinai the first thing that God tells Moses once he ascends the mountain for his 40-day stay is what material objects are needed for the building of the Mishkan.
Aviva Zornberg mentions two different classical interpretations of this narrative. The first states that the Mishkan is given by God to the people because after the encounter at Sinai they are holy and prepared to accept the instructions and to receive the gift of a divine dwelling place in their midst. This interpretation also views the Mishkan as a kind of "portable Sinai," as much of the language describing the Mishkan echoes the description of Sinai. In this way the Mishkan enables the people to take the unique spiritual high of Sinai with them wherever they go.
However, Rashi and others have another interpretation, which is actually more prevalent. This interpretation again relies on the belief that there is no true chronological order to the Torah, and so the instructions for the building of the Mishkan are placed after the building of the Golden Calf (rather than before, as it would appear from reading the actual text). In this interpretation the gold used for the Mishkan "atones for the gold of the calf." This interpretation is often read simply as meaning that, after the Golden Calf, God realized that the people needed a physical representation of the Divine presence, and so God designed the Mishkan. However, in Zornberg's analysis it becomes clear that it is much deeper and more complex than that.
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