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Torah Sparks

February 28, 2004 – 7 Adar 5764

Annual: Ex. 25:1 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 485; Hertz p. 326)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 26:31 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p. 495; Hertz p. 333)
Haftarah: I Kings 5:26 – 6:13

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi MartinJ. Pasternak, Director


25:1-9 - God commands that the Israelites be asked for gifts, terumah, for the building of the tabernacle (mishkan).

25:10-40 - Instructions for making the ark (aron) and its covering, the Table (shulhan) and its accessories, and the menorah.

26:1-30 - Detailed instructions for making the mishkan: the cloth covering, the gold clasps, and the goat hair tent over the mishkan. Instructions regarding the 48 planks of the mishkan, and their joining above by means of the rings, and inside by means of wooden bars.

26:31-35 - The curtain (parokhet) dividing the mishkan and screening the Holy of Holies (Kodesh ha-Kodashim) where the aron was placed.

26:36 - 27:19 - The screen (masakh) for the entrance, the altar (mizbeah), and the enclosure or courtyard (hatzer) of the mishkan.

Selected Text

[Mishpatim] Moses ascended the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of the Lord dwelled on Mt. Sinai … the appearance of the Glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain before the eyes of the Israelites … Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:15-18)

[Terumah] The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, speak to the Israelites and tell them to bring me gifts, from every person whose heart moves him …. You shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and scarlet yarn; fine linen and goat hairs; ram skins dyed red, dolphin skins and acacia wood; oil for light, spices for anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for the ephod and breast plate. (Ex. 25:1-9)

Discussion – Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

Until this week, we have read in Sefer Shemot of the Israelites’ enslavement, the plagues and exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, the beginning of the travels in the desert, the Aseret ha’Dibrot (Ten Commandments) and the numerous basic laws of civilization. The Torah’s text changes radically as we end last week’s reading (Mishpatim) with Moses in God’s presence on Mount Sinai and find ourselves (at the beginning of this week’s portion, Terumah) presented with a list of materials and construction details for the mishkan and its contents. This radical change of topics is jarring. This week’s reading seems quite out of place. In such circumstances, we inevitably turn to Rashi.

Yet when we look at Rashi on Parashat Terumah we do not find an answer to our question. However, two weeks hence, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we find the following comment by Rashi: “The Torah is not in chronological order. The incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) occurred many days before the command to work on the mishkan. (Ex. 25) The tablets were broken (by Moses after the Golden Calf) on the 17th of Tammuz. The Holy One was reconciled with the Israelites on Yom Kippur, and it was on the following day that they gave gifts for the mishkan which was constructed on the 1st of Nisan.” (Rashi on Ex. 31:18) Rashi’s comment is based upon midrashim which state not only that the Golden Calf preceded the commandment to build the mishkan but that the mishkan was a direct result of the people’s sin (e.g. Shemot Raba 33:3, Tanhuma Terumah 8).

How can Rashi and the midrashim state so boldly that the Torah is not in chronological order? This concept is found in the Talmud based upon Numbers 1:1, which refers to “the second month of the second year” from the exodus and Numbers 9:1, which refers to the first month of the second year. Since a later verse refers to a period one month earlier, the conclusion is reached: eyn mukdam u’meuhar ba’Torah – there is no earlier and later in the Torah (i.e., the Torah is not in chronological order). (Pesahim 6b, 49b)

The Talmud itself recognizes that there are limitations to this principle. Ramban (Nahmanides, 1194-1270), for one, is of the opinion that the Torah is generally in chronological order (yesh mukdam u’meuhar baTorah) and that one should not suggest an alternate chronology for the text except in unusual and quite limited circumstances. Consistent with his approach, Ramban disagrees with the midrashim and with Rashi and is of the opinion that after the grand revelation at Sinai where the Israelites had their most direct encounter with God, the Holy One commanded the building of the mishkan to provide a focus for the people in which God’s glory (kavod) would dwell. (Ramban on Ex. 35:1 and 25:1)

Both opinions have much to recommend them. Rashi, representing most commentators, sees the construction of this temporary mishkan as an atonement for the het ha’egel, the sin of the Golden Calf. Just as the people gave their gold to build something tangible to worship, they now gave their gold and valuables to create the mishkan, a tangible representation of God’s presence. Ramban, representing a minority opinion (but one defending the integrity and chronology of the Torah’s text), sees in the mishkan as a continuation of the grand revelation at Sinai, with God’s kavod, glory, continuing to dwell among the people (the mishkan was, in effect, a portable Sinai). Ramban saw the mishkan not as a form of atonement but as a means of avoiding (or at least minimizing) sin by keeping the people closer to God.

Thus, we have a philosophical question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, to put the question in a Torah context: Which came first, the mishkan or the egg-el? Concerning the chicken v. egg question, the first chapter of Genesis would appear to confirm that, at least according to the Torah, poultry (Gen. 1:20) as well as the other animal species were created by God fully formed (see the creation account for the 5th and 6th days, Gen. 1:20-31). The order of creation – which interestingly follows an evolutionary progressionfrom simple to complex – is fixed. Chronology is important in the Genesis narrative. Chronology is also important in fields as diverse as science and the setting of economic policy. How else to differentiate between cause and effect? Yet, as straightforward as the chronology appears in the early chapters of Genesis, it is not always so simple to establish a timeline from the Torah’s text. And this leaves us with the ability to interpret and learn.

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. If we accept the opinion that the mishkan was commanded in response to the sin of the Golden Calf (het ha’egel) are we to conclude that, but for this sin, the Jewish people would not have had a mishkan at all? The mishkan was the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem (Bet ha’Mikdash). How might this have influenced Ramban’s opinion?
  2. Some three thousand people died in the aftermath of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:28). Recognizing the inevitable shortcomings of humanity, are we better advised to act in accordance with Ramban’s opinion, or is it more appropriate to allow people to act and suffer the consequences and then respond?
  3. Rashi views the het ha’egel in accordance with the more common understanding, i.e., that the people lost faith in God and were engaged in idolatry. Ramban, again clearly in the minority, understands the incident not as creating an alternate god but, rather, as a substitute for Moses, who was, in their belief, missing. (See Rashi and Ramban on Ex. 32:1) Which came first, the commentators’ views on the nature of the incident with the Golden Calf or their belief as to the timing of the building of the mishkan – i.e., what is the interplay between these concepts?

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