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Serving Hashem from My Basement | Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

March 21, 2020

It’s ironic that just as we are reading about the construction of the mishkan in Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, our own mikdash me’at, our shul, which the gemara (Megilla 29a) refers to as a mini Temple, is closed.  So much of our shul is modeled after the original mishkan and Beit haMikdash, and we daven and learn there on a daily basis.  And yet, for the time being, we can’t.  However, according to Rashi, this might the perfect time to learn a very important lesson.  Allow me to explain.

Parshat Pekudei begins, “אלה פקודי המשכן משכן העדות, these are the reckonings of the mishkan, the mishkan of testimony (Shemot 38:21).”  What is meant by the phrase “משכן העדות, the mishkan of testimony?”  Ramban relates it to the tablets that Moshe received from Hashem on Mount Sinai, which are referred to as “לחת העדות, the tablets of testimony (Shemot 32:16).”  According to Ramban, the luchot, housed in the aron kodesh, were the central piece of the mishkan, and therefore, the very name of the mishkan references them. 

However, Rashi suggests a different approach.  Rashi writes that the mishkan itself was a testimony, as it testified to the fact that Hashem had forgiven B’nei Yisrael for the sin of the golden calf, for through the creation of the mishkan, He again rested His presence among us.

Interestingly, this debate between Ramban and Rashi extends to a basic question regarding the parshiyot of the past few weeks.  Which came first: the golden calf or the mishkanRamban claims that the instructions to build the mishkan came first, as seems to be the simple understanding according to the order of the parshiyot; first we read Terumah and Tetzaveh, outlining the instructions for building the mishkan and all of its facets, and then in Ki Tisa we read of the sin of the golden calf.  Rashi, however, claims that the sin of the golden calf came first.  In fact, if there never had been a sin of the golden calf, perhaps there never would have even been a commandment to build a mishkan!  The purpose of the mishkan, the Tabernacle of testimony, was to remind us that although we had sinned at Har Sinai, our teshuva was accepted, and Hashem would dwell with us again.  So it must be that the mishkan, which was a response or a consequence of the golden calf, only came afterwards.

Let’s understand a bit more about this connection, according to Rashi, between the golden calf and the mishkan.  And we begin by revisiting the sin of the golden calf.  What happened?!  How could it be that B’nei Yisrael did this at the foot of Har Sinai so soon after encountering Hashem so clearly?  Some suggest that the golden calf was never meant to be an alternative god.  It wasn’t avoda zara, idol worship, in the classic sense.  Rather, it was meant to be an intermediary between B’nei Yisrael and Hashem.  Since leaving Egypt, B’nei Yisrael relied so heavily on Moshe to be their middleman.  Moshe was in constant contact with G-d, and the Jewish people felt that their connection to the Divine went through him.  So we can imagine their panic when Moshe seemed to delay returning from his ascent on Har Sinai!  The midrash (cited by Rashi on Shemot 32:1) even states that Satan showed the Jewish people an image that portrayed that Moshe had died, and thus would never return.  B’nei Yisrael believed that if Moshe was gone, then so was their connection to Hashem!  And therefore, they ran to Aharon to try and figure out how to create a new means of communicating with and serving the Almighty. 

But their error was grave, and represented a fundamental and gross misunderstanding of our relationship with Hashem.  We don’t believe that Hashem has secretaries who answer our calls to see if He is available; we don’t believe that our connection to Hashem has to travel through anything physical; and we don’t believe that direct contact and connection with Hashem is reserved only for the Moshe Rabbeinus of the world!  We know that every person can and must have his own, unique relationship with Hashem.  Of course, having leaders like Moshe helps, and having a space like the mishkan is great.  But regardless of who you are or where you are, Hashem is always there, and Torah study, mitzvot, tefillah, and chesed are not limited to any space or bound by any time.

Hashem, so to speak, understood the challenge of relating to Him directly, without any physical representation.  And therefore, after the sin of the golden calf, conceded and instructed us to build the mishkan.  There we would have a place where we could use the physical representation of the aron, the mizbeach, the menorah, and more to help inspire us to avodat Hashem.  And there too, we had kohanim, a kohen gadol, and leaders and scholars to guide us in the proper service.  But all of that only came after we failed to do it properly on our own.  The lesson of the golden calf and its aftermath is that we shouldn’t need or depend on anything external or material to relate to Hashem.  “כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו אלקים קרבים אליו כה' אלקינו בכל קראינו אליו, for what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our G-d whenever we call upon Him (Devarim 4:7)?”  How fortunate we are to have direct access; wherever, whenever, and whoever you are- never hesitate for a moment to speak to Hashem for He is always listening. 

Of course, we all miss shul.  And, of course, we need shul and rely upon it to be the center of our lives.  It’s the primary place for community tefillah, it’s the center of our torah learning, it’s a hub for friendship and chesed.  And we pray that our return will G-d willing be very soon.  But for now, we have the opportunity to show Hashem, and to show ourselves, that even without the beautiful  physical edifice of DNG and without the physical sense of friendship and community we experience there, we can still daven, learn, and serve Hashem, because we understand that no physical intermediary or support is necessary in order for us to connect to G-d.

I personally have been inspired by seeing and hearing how during this complicated time so many people have increased their Torah, tefillah, and chesed.  We’ve learned the lesson from the sin of the golden calf.  We understand that we can serve Hashem anywhere and everywhere.  Our hope and prayer is that we can take this inspiration, and our new commitments to increasing davening and learning, and bring them with us back to shul, back to our mini mikdash, and physically again unite as a community in good health and joy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Fox

Sat, April 10 2021 28 Nisan 5781