Question: Can you please explain why the story of the sin of the Golden Calf is right in the middle of the description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)?
Answer: I’ll tell you a few thoughts that I have, and maybe you can add to them. In the Torah Portion of Ki Sisa we read about the sin of the Golden Calf, one of the saddest events in human history. Not so much because of what they did – unfortunately, Israel worshiped idols on quite a number of occasions in their history. What makes it so sad is when it happened: We had just received the Torah on Mt. Sinai; it was a time of the greatest closeness to G-d that we have ever experienced. Think of it as a wedding. We had a bright future to look forward to. G-d loved us and we loved him. And then, the moment Moses wasn’t keeping an eye on us, we turned away from G-d and just ruined everything, like a bride leaving her groom at the wedding for another man (so to speak). Who could handle that? It was a disaster. I might have expected that that would be the end of our relationship: G-d would start over again and try something else with a different nation.
But that’s not what happened. G-d picked up the pieces, so to speak, and found a way to continue. And he said he wanted to be close to us. That’s what the Mishkan, the tabernacle, represented. A Jew (or anyone else too) in those days could leave his tent and walk to a place where holiness was tangible. I can’t describe it, am too handicapped myself to really understand it, but that’s how it was. In our times things are very hidden (we talk about “faith”), but in those days spirituality and holiness was available to anyone who wanted to become closer. This is why we pray daily for the restoration of the Temple: Things aren’t supposed to be dark and murky – that’s just a consequence of our loss of the main source of light in the world.
In the section of the Torah you’re reading, Israel is given a unbelievable opportunity. Not only were they going to have a Mishkan in their midst – any individual “whose heart moved him” was able to contribute his property to make it. Our property is an extension of ourselves. If a person gave a piece of gold, or silver, or cloth, he himself would be a part of the Mishkan, and he would share in a special way in the holiness it represented. If you read a little further, you’ll see how Israel responded with great excitement to the opportunity, until Moses had to tell them to stop – we’ve got more than enough materials already!
Though we had fallen badly with the Golden Calf, we jumped at the chance to bring G-d back closer to us, and the story of the Mishkan is one of the great success stories of the Torah.