Torah Portion of the Week: A Question of Timing

Parashat Vayakhel: When is the sin of the Golden Calf committed – before God commands Moses to erect the Tabernacle, as he is issuing that demand, or afterward?

'The Adoration of the Golden Calf,' Nicolas Poussin, 1633–1634.
Wikimedia Commons

What is the connection between the Tabernacle and the Golden Calf? Why are the construction of the House of God and the fact that it is furnished with pure gold items presented as a lofty achievement, whereas God’s representation as a gilded animal is considered a grave sin? When is the sin of the Golden Calf committed – before God commands Moses to erect the Tabernacle, as he is issuing that demand, or afterward?

Here is the order of events in the Torah: After hearing the Ten Commandments, laws and other ordinances at Mount Sinai, Israel pledges to obey them, entering into a covenant with God (as described in Parashot Yitro and Mishpatim).

Moses then ascends the mount, where he is commanded by God to erect the Tabernacle, and prepare its sacred tools, furnishings and priestly garments; Moses is also told by God about the half-shekel offering and observance of the Sabbath; and subsequently receives two stone tablets upon which God has engraved his commandments (Parashot Teruma, Titzaveh and the beginning of Ki Tissa). Meanwhile, Israel offends the Almighty by committing the grave sin of creating and worshiping the Golden Calf, whereupon Moses shatters the tablets, placates God, is commanded to perform additional commandments similar to the earlier ones – and is summoned to Mount Sinai to receive new tablets (the rest of Ki Tissa).

The relationship between the Tabernacle and the Golden Calf has troubled classical rabbinical authorities, and medieval and contemporary commentators alike. One of the latter, Ephraim Chamiel, in his book “Lada’at Torah” (“To Know Torah”; in Hebrew), offers a clear, probing analysis of the issues. For their part, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses, son of Nachman, 13th-century Spain) and other exegetists posited that the biblical text conveys the chain of events as they occurred: The commandment to erect the traveling Tabernacle precedes the sin of the Golden Calf, which is followed by construction of the Tabernacle. For these exegetists, the series of events described is both chronologically accurate and theologically significant: the fact of God dwelling in a sanctuary and its rituals constitute the essence of the Israelite religion.

By contrast, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki, 11th-century France) and other scholars believed that the sin of the Golden Calf precedes the commandment to construct the Tabernacle. Aware that their position runs counter to the chronology presented in the text, they explain the discrepancy as illustrating the midrashic interpretive principle, “No future, no past in the Torah” – that is, the text does not necessarily present events chronologically.

This stance also has far-reaching theological implications: Although God did not initially plan to command Moses to construct the Tabernacle, the sin of the Golden Calf demonstrates that the Israelites are not yet ready for a religion without a temple, and need a mediating element between them and God. According to Rashi and other commentators, the commandment to construct the Temple reflects God’s recognition that the Israelites require a physical place through which they can worship the Almighty and feel his presence, and which will prevent them from seeking other – forbidden – means of mediation. For these commentators, the bottom line here is that, if Israel had been sufficiently spiritual, a sanctuary would have been superfluous.

This week’s reading, Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20), begins with Moses descending from Mount Sinai, it would seem after the sin of the Golden Calf and his receipt of the second set of stone tablets. However, if we look carefully at the text, we might be puzzled about this narrative sequence. Initially, we read: “And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the Lord hath commanded, that ye should do them’” (Exodus 35:1).

Moses begins his speech with the subject of observing the Sabbath, a commandment from Parashat Ki Tissa, and asks Israel to contribute to the Tabernacle’s construction: “This is the thing which the Lord commanded, saying: Take ye from among you an offering unto the Lord, whosoever is of a willing heart” (Exod. 35:4-5) – a call to fulfill precisely the divine commandment mentioned in Parashat Teruma: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing” (Exod. 25:2). The Torah then describes the construction of the Temple and its tools and furnishings, the preparation of the sacred garments and the appointment of the priests. All this is perfectly congruent, in terms of content and language, with what God commands Moses in Teruma, Titzaveh and the initial verses of Ki Tissa.

What about the sin of the Golden Calf? Although it constitutes a grave and dramatic act of disobedience, the readers of Parashat Vayakhel might tend to forget about it since it’s neither mentioned nor alluded to in this Torah portion – as if everything described in the second half of Parashat Ki Tissa (the sin of the Golden Calf, the punishment, the shattering of the tablets and the granting of new ones) never happened. Moreover, the next weekly readings will describe in detail the Tabernacle and its rituals without mentioning the Golden Calf. Furthermore, in the actual text about the Golden Calf, no reference is made to the commandment to construct the Tabernacle, whether or not that commandment comes before or after the sin of the Calf.

From the standpoint of biblical criticism, this state of affairs leads to the conclusion that there are several stories from different sources describing the granting of the Torah, and interwoven in the text. The initial passages about the Tabernacle did not acknowledge the story of the Golden Calf, which was inserted among them in the canonical Torah – and vice versa. According to the “Priestly” account of these events, Moses is commanded by God to erect the Tabernacle, this directive is executed precisely and the commandments are conveyed only afterward – as the story is related in Leviticus and Numbers.

This version does not regard the Tabernacle as a divine compromise that recognizes the Israelites’ purportedly primitive need for something to mediate between them and God. As we saw in previous weekly readings, the Tabernacle is intended to serve both God and Israel, while the sin of the Golden Calf, according to this tradition, never happened.

In contrast, according to other sources, the divine revelation on Mount Sinai included the granting of the Ten Commandments, the laws and ordinances that were quickly violated by Israel, and the Tabernacle does not constitute an alternative solution to the Golden Calf because Israel was not commanded to erect a tabernacle in the desert.

The sin of the Golden Calf is ritualistic in essence – a violation of the prohibition in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image” (Exod. 20:3), and of the declaration, “Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver, or gods of gold, ye shall not make unto you” (Exod. 20:19). However, ritual in itself is not described negatively in these texts. Quite the contrary: The laws set out in Parashat Mishpatim concerning sacrifices in temples naturally assume that such acts are legitimate and desirable.

Generally speaking, the Tabernacle is not a by-product of the sin of the Golden Calf and the commandment to erect it does not precede that transgression: The Tabernacle and the Golden Calf belong to different sources that are interwoven into the biblical text. Whereas there are discrepancies between these sources on many details concerning the granting of the Torah, none claims that God is abstract and incomprehensible, or that he is not interested in sacrifices. That may be a lofty idea but it is not a biblical concept.