By Rabbi Zev Leff
R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R’ Yonasan: The name Bezalel indicates his wisdom, for when HaKadosh Baruch Hu told Moshe to tell Bezalel to make a Mishkan, an Aron, and the other vessels, Moshe reversed the order and said to him, “Make and Aron and the vessels and the Mishkan.” Bezalel then said to him, “Moshe Rabbeinu, the way of the world is to build a house and then bring into it the vessels, but you told me to first make the vessels and then the Mishkan. Where will I put the vessels that I make? Perhaps Hashem told you to make the Mishkan first and then the Aron and vessels.” Moshe responded, “You are called Betzel Kel – in the shadow of Hashem – Betzel Kel – for you knew precisely how to interpret Hashem’s words as if you were there, in his shadow” (Berachos 55a).
To understand this difficult Gemara requites an appreciation of the Mishkan and its vessels. That in turn depends on understanding the relationship of our bodies to our souls.
We live in a physical world, and our neshamah is confined n a physical body. For that reason, says Sefer Hachinuch, that which we experience physically makes a stronger impression on us and, in turn, motivates our hears and souls. Thus, for instance, the eating and drinking of Yom Tov are designed to bring out the spiritual joy of our souls. The performance of actions associated with happiness, and not the mental contemplation of happiness, engenders that emotional state.
The proper external actions are, according to Sefer Hachinuch, the means by which one reaches the proper inner intention. For that reason, one must occupy himself in the study of Torah – even shelo lishma (not for its own sake) – for learning will eventually bring him to Torah lishma (for its own sake).
The majestic and awe-inspiring Mishkan similarly was a physical environment which exercised the most profound effect on all who beheld it. The physical impression it created was transmuted into a powerful inner feeling.
Physical actions have another purpose beyond arousing the proper inner attachment to Hashem. Our task in this world is to place our spiritual beings in control of our physical beings. When we act in conformity with our deepest spiritual perceptions, we are actualizing our inner potential. Ramban explains (Bereishis 22:1) that the essence of the tests to which Hashem subjects tzaddikim is that it allows them to realize their spiritual potential in action. Actions performed with the proper intention infuse all realms of the world with spiritual power.
Chazal derive from the command to gilt the Aron Kodesh from both the inside and outside that a talmid chacham must be the same inside and outside – tocho kebaro. Literally his inside must be like his outside, seemingly implying that his inner state must be brought into conformity with his external state.
If we examine the commandment of gilding the Aron Kodesh, we notice something interesting. There is first a general command to gild the Aron: ” You shall gild it with pure gold” (Shmos 25:;11). Then the Torah specifies, “from within and without you shall gild it.” The first general command relates to the outside of the Aron, the physical which engenders the inner emotions. Then after mentioning the internal covering, the Torah again mentions the covering of the outside. This symbolizes the external expression that must be given to the perfected inner intention, the realization of the inner potential.
This same dynamic relation between external action and inner intent is symbolized by the Mishkan itself. Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan was not needed for God’s presence to devolve upon the Jewish people (see Sforno to Shemos 20:21): “…in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee” (Shemos 20:21). With the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the people showed that they needed a physical entity upon which to focus their attention in order to experience God’s presence. The Mishkan served this need, and hence only there could God’s Presence be felt in its full intesity.
The Meshech Chochma notes that in Ki Sisa the discussion of Shabbos follows the discussion of the Mishkan. In Vayakhel, the order is reversed. Shabbos strengthens our belief in God as the Creator of the Universe. As originally conceived prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan was meant to give external expression to that belief in Hashem. But it was not needed to engender that belief since God’s presence already dwelt on each Jew wherever he was. Since the Mishkan was only to enhance our belief in the same way that Shabbos does, there would at that time have been no conflict between the activities of the Mishkan and Shabbos. Hence, in Ki Sisa, prior to the sin, the Mishkan precedes Shabbos.
After the sin of the Golden Calf however, the Mishkan was needed for God’s presence to rest on the Jewish People. Construction of the Mishkan was no longer an expression of Divine service but a precondition for that service. As such, the activities of the Mishkan and attendant melachos could no longer be permitted on Shabbos. This is hinted to in the fact that in Vayakhel, after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the discussion of shabbos precedes that of the Mishkan, from which we learn that the activities of the Mishkan are prohibited on Shabbos.
We can now answer a famous question: If the Mishkan was an atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf, why does the command to build the Mishkan in Terumah precede the account of the sin of the Golden Calf in Ki Sisa? The answer is that the Mishkan served two purposes. The first – the actualization of the spiritual strivings of the Jewish people – preceded the sin of the Golden Calf. Only the second purpose – the creation of a dwelling place for the Shechinah – followed the sin of the Golden Calf.
Moshe was first told of the Mishkan before the sin of the Golden Calf. At that time, the structure of the Mishkan itself was of secondary importance, and the vessels through which man would actualize his feelings for Hashem were the principal aspect of the Mishkan. Therefore, Moshe mentioned the vessels first. The Jews were then far above the natural order of the world – in which the house precedes the vessels. They needed no majestic structure to house the holiness of God’s Presence.
Bezalel, however, received the command to build the Mishkan after the sin of the Golden Calf. He realized that God’s intention now was to created an environment to inspire inner spiritual feelings which would be actualized through the vessels. Bezalel understood what Moshe did not – that Hashem’s original command was specific in its order because Hashem knew that Bnei Yisrael would sin and require the Mishkan in order to experience His Presence.
The word Mishkan is repeated at the beginning of Pekudei: “Ele pekudei haMishkan, Mishkan haeidus – these are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of witness.” The original purpose of the Mishkan (with the “hey” hayediah) was to enable the Jewish people to express and actualize their inner emotions and beliefs. After the Sin, the Mishkan became Mishkan ha’eidus, the place where God’s Presence would be felt.
There is an important message here for us. we must not feel hypocritical if we do the mitzvos without the fullest intentions that we know should accompany these activities. As long as we aspire to attain that kavanah (intention), our actions will bring us to that goal. Also we must remember that even at the height of spiritual inspiration, we must not minimize the importance of the meticulous observance of the physical mitzvos, for they are the true culmination of those spiritual feelings. Without them, the potential is unrealized.