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I’ve heard that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) served as an atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. But if so, why is it commanded in Exodus before the story of the Golden Calf? It seems like they were going to have the Mishkan anyway? It’s altogether strange that first the Torah records the instructions to build the Mishkan and to make the clothes for the Priests, then it discusses the story of the Golden Calf, and only then does it describes the Tabernacle’s actual construction. Why the interruption in the story?
Thank you for your very good observations. You are right that the order of events in the story is curious. There is actually a debate in the commentators regarding this issue. According to some, the sequence of events is actually presented out of order. In actuality, the sin of the Golden Calf occurred first. Only after Moses achieved atonement for it did God command Israel to construct the Tabernacle. According to others, the events occurred as they are presented: First God commanded Israel to build the Mishkan, then they sinned, and only after did God forgive them and did they begin the construction. (See Rashi to Exodus 31:18, Ramban and Ibn Ezra to start of Parshat Terumah.)
Either way, a fascinating dichotomy emerges. The Torah presents us with two distinct descriptions of the Tabernacle. It describes the Tabernacle and the Priestly garments in Exodus 25-28 before Israel sinned with the Golden Calf (or at least, presented without mention of the sin, as if it had not yet occurred). And it records the construction of the Tabernacle after the sin already happened (Exodus 35-39). And there are some very telling distinctions between the two versions.
The Mishkan served two distinct purposes. One was simply as a place in which the many sacrificial duties were performed – the bringing of the offerings, the lighting of the menorah, burning of the incense, etc. There were many unique commandments to perform, and they could only be done in a functional Temple. (See Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot asai 20, Beit HaBechira 1:1.)
But the Torah describes a more profound role for the Tabernacle – to be a place where God’s Divine Presence (Shechinah) could dwell in the world. God instructs Israel, “And they will make for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The Torah likewise very often calls the Tabernacle the “ohel mo’ed” – “tent of meeting” – i.e., a meeting place between God and Israel.
Nachmanides (intro. to Parshat Terumah, based on Zohar) explains further that the Mishkan was to serve as a continuation of the experience of Mount Sinai. At the Revelation, God’s Divine Presence descended from Heaven to dwell among the nation. The building of the Mishkan would continue this experience and make it eternal, so that God’s Presence could always dwell among the people.
Given these two roles, there is a fascinating distinction between before and after Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. According to the Sages, the Revelation at Sinai was so awesome an event that it literally brought the Children of Israel to the level of Adam and Eve before the primordial Sin. The nation was ready to dwell in Eden again with God among them. There would have been no death and no evil inclination. They had achieved perfection and the world was near its ultimate fulfillment.
However, Israel sinned, almost immediately, with the Golden Calf, and man’s lowly post-Sin level returned. As the Sages put it, the “smell” that the Serpent had put in mankind left briefly at Sinai, but returned with the Golden Calf (Talmud Shabbat 145b-146a, Bamidbar Rabbah Naso 7). We were banished from the Garden once again, and it would require millennia till the world would again achieve rectification.
Let’s look at the two roles of the Tabernacle in light of Israel’s fall. Again, the Tabernacle had two functions – as a place where the service was performed, and to “house” the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel had reached the level of “living” with God – as they experienced at Sinai and as Adam and Eve had been before they sinned. The world had become perfected; God could dwell within the world together with mankind. There was thus no need for a tiny structure to house God. He would exist universally.
As a result, in Exodus 25-28, before the sin of the Golden Calf is presented, the emphasis of the Torah is not on the structure of the Temple – the walls and curtains – but on the vessels – the Ark, Menorah, etc. The Torah first describes each vessel and its function (Ch. 25) and only after the structure of the Mishkan itself (Ch. 26). This is because the main role of the Tabernacle would have been doing the service, not housing God. God’s Presence would have dwelt primarily in the Tabernacle walls, but not there exclusively. From there His majesty would have permeated the entire world.
This was the Tabernacle described by Moses to the nation – the Moses who never sinned with the Golden Calf. But the Tabernacle was actually constructed primarily by Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur – the very Hur who was killed by an angry mob demanding a Golden Calf (Vayikra Rabbah 10:3, brought in Rashi to Exodus 32:5). Thus, Bezalel related especially well to what the Mishkan meant after the sin. The Talmud goes so far as to say he corrected Moses’s pre-Sin description of the Tabernacle (Brachot 55a).
After the Golden Calf, the Torah first describes the walls and curtains of the Tabernacle and only after the vessels (chapters 36 & 37). This is because now that Israel had fallen, they no longer stood on the level of Adam and Eve. They had been banished from the Garden. God could not dwell on the earth any more. The Tabernacle would thus serve the purpose of providing a place in which God’s Presence could dwell. Thus, the Mishkan was primarily a structure – the one little corner of the earth where God’s Presence could dwell and which would serve as a throwback to the Garden of Eden. And secondarily, it would function as a place to perform the Divine service.
Finally, returning to your question, one of the roles of the Tabernacle was to serve as atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. But that role came to play only in the second presentation of the Tabernacle. At first it was primarily a place to do the service. Afterwards it assumed (more centrally) the role of housing the Divine Presence.
(Based on part on a lecture heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig.)