Shabbat Terumah - 5760
The "Mishkan," the "Keruvim" and the "Egel HaZahav"
The following is based to a large extent on the discussion of Parshat Terumah in "Binah BaMikra," by Rav Yissachar Yaakovson:
Beginning with this week's Parshah, and continuing into the beginning of Ki Tisa, the Torah provides details regarding the Mishkan, and its associated objects and vessels. In Ki Tisa, we find an account of the disastrous fashioning of and worship of the "Egel HaZahav," the Golden Calf, which deteriorated as well into immorality and bloodshed, combining within it all three of the Cardinal Sins of Judaism. In Parshiyot VaYakhel and Pekudei, the Torah returns to a discussion of the Mishkan and the garments of the "Kohanim," the Priests, who serve within it. This strange organization of Biblical components calls for, as RASHI often says, even cries out for, an explanation!
The main point of the first explanation, stated in Midrash Tanchuma, is "Kapparah," Atonement. The Jewish People had sinned grievously in making the "Egel" and are compared in the Midrash to a "shameful bride who commited adultery while yet under her bridal canopy." Despite this, and due to the pleas of Moshe on her behalf, G-d chose to remain with the Jewish People in the desert. Indeed, the "Mishkan," the collapsible and movable Holy Temple is called "Mishkan HaEdut," the "Mishkan of Testimony," because its very existence testifies to the fact of G-d's forgiveness and His granting of Atonement to Israel.
Indeed, the RAMBAN, in his introduction to the Book of Shemot, sees as the theme of the entire "Sefer" the return by the process of "Teshuvah," Repentance, of the People of Israel to the level of the "Avot," the forefathers, with whom the company of the Divine Presence was not uncommon. And the acceptance of their "Teshuvah" by Hashem was embodied in the Mishkan, the symbol of the Divine Presence. This would account for the great enthusiasm that the Jewish People displayed for the construction of the "Mishkan," for which they donated all the materials and all the labor.
A second line of thought is quoted in the name of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari (Part 1, Section 97), who always comes to the defense of the Jewish People. In those times, all cultures used "tzurot," physical forms, concrete objects, as part of their worship practices, or religious ritual. Moshe had promised that he would return from Mt. Sinai with a physical object (the stone tablets), which would represent the essence of their unique religion. When he went up without food or water, and stayed beyond the appointed time according to their mistaken calculations, they erred by creating a physical object on their own, the "Egel HaZahav," something not given to them by G-d, but also something not meant to replace G-d (G-d forbid)! Their sin was "that they associated Divine content with an object that they had made with their hands and with their will, without the command of G-d."
A third approach, elaborated by Professor Yechezkel Kaufmann, focuses on the nature of the "Keruvim." In the mystical vision of the Prophet Yechezkel, found at the beginning of his Book (Yechezkel, 1:10), he describes a four-faced heavenly being, the faces being that of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. In the tenth chapter (Yechezkel 10:14), the face of an ox is replaced by the face of a "Keruv." In "Divrei HaYamim," Chronicles 1, 28:18, we find the "Kaporet," the Ark Cover with its projecting "Keruvim," described as the "Merkavah," the Chariot, so to speak, of G-d.
In "Tehilim," Psalms 18:11, and in his nearly identical Song of Praise to Hashem found in Shmuel 2, 22:11, David HaMelech describes G-d as a Heavenly Rider, "VaYirkav al Keruv, VaYauf," "And He rode upon a 'Keruv,' and He flew." Shmuel David Luzzatto explains the connection between the Hebrew words "Keruv" and "VaYirkav," "And He rode," as being related to the fact that these words are composed of variations of the same letters.
Thus, according to this view, there is a connection between the "Egel," the young ox, in its manifestation in the "Throne-Room" of G-d in the vision of Yechezkel and in His "Chariot" in "Divrei HaYamim," and the "Egel HaZahav," the Golden Calf which the Jewish People constructed at the foot of Mt. Sinai, for they had experienced a vision at the Yam Suf greater than that of Yechezkel, about which the Midrash says, "What the Jewish maid-servant saw at the Yam Suf, Yechezkel ben Buzi did not see in his Vision of the Chariot."
Thus, the Jewish People were trying, in a terribly misguided fashion, and in their desperate need, as Yehudah HaLevi explained, for a physical object to incorporate in their worship, to re-create at the site of the Revelation the "Chariot" of Hashem and His "Throne-Room."
And the comment of the RAMBAN mentioned above, that the theme of the Book of Shemot is the return of the Children of Israel to the level of the "Avot" may also be relevant in this context. For the RAMBAN's language in his Introduction to the Book of Shemot is, "and when they came to Mt. Sinai, and they made the Mishkan, and Hashem returned and allowed His Divine Presence to reside among them, then they returned to the level of their fathers; for the close conversation of Hashem was upon their tents, and the 'Avot' were the Divine Chariot. And therefore this Book is complete with the completion of the Mishkan, and with the Splendor of Hashem filling it always."
Misguidedly then, the Jewish People, wishing to identify with their great leaders of the Past, because they mistakenly believed they'd lost their own great leader, and knowing that the "Avot" were considered, in some sense, the "Chariot" of Hashem, sought a symbol of the "Chariot," the "Egel," as their object of worship.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU