By Rabbi Avi Billet
Issue of March 20, 2009 / 24 Adar 5769
After the debacle of the Golden Calf, the question must be asked: were the Israelites completely forgiven for their sin?
Sure, G-d allowed them to survive, with minimal loss of life (0.5 percent of the army age males were killed), and even Aharon retained his post as High Priest. G-d changed His attributes of mercy and made it easier for His “chosen nation” to be fallible humans who can repent when they do wrong. But did they achieve complete atonement?
After the whole incident plays out, the Torah continues with its description of how the Mishkan –– the original synagogue –– was put together. The first component of this week’s double Torah portion talks about the creation of the materials and the vessels, while the second half of the “double parsha” is the actual erecting of the building, complete with all its accoutrements placed where they were meant to be.
In 38:21, we are told: “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony…” In this verse, the word “Mishkan” is repeated, and the term “Ha-edut” is added to it, seemingly to describe what kind of Mishkan was constructed. Interestingly, one midrashic account suggests there was a second mishkan, whose purpose was merely to have a double of everything, in the event something broke or was otherwise ruined in the functioning Mishkan.
Whether this was so can be debated.
The Midrash (51:4) asks a more pointed question. Why is it called the “Tabernacle of Testimony?” When did it become anything more than a Tabernacle, a plain and simple Mishkan?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yishmael says it became testimony to the entire world that the Israelites had been completely forgiven, and that this forgiveness had come from G-d.
The Midrash produces a parable: A king took his beloved wife, whom he loved most of all, and became angry with her over some incident, and he left her. Her neighbors told her, ‘He’s not coming back, you know.” After a while he sent her a message saying, “Prepare the palace, make the beds, for on a specific day I shall come to visit you.” When that day came, the king showed up and they made peace with one another. He entered the palace and they ate and drank together.
Her neighbors could not believe it! However, as soon as they smelled the spices [her perfume], they knew the king and his wife had reconciled.
The Midrash explains that this is exactly what happened with G-d and the Israelites. He had invited them to His palace at Sinai, gave them the Torah, and called them a “kingdom of priests.” After 40 days they sinned, and the nations of the world said, “He is never coming back to you Israelites. Your G-d has left you forever.” But when Moshe sought mercy for the people, G-d forgave, as it says in Bamidbar 14, “And G-d said, ‘I have forgiven as you have spoken.’”
Moshe expressed appreciation that G-d forgave His people, but he also requested that G-d make it clear to the nations of the world that Israel had been forgiven for its misdeed. G-d said, “I shall rest My presence in your midst, and all will see that I have forgiven them.” This is why it is called the Tabernacle of Testimony –– it bears witness that G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Perhaps the smell of the ketoret (incense) parallels the smell of the king’s wife’s perfume.
Post the Golden Calf, the Jewish people were blessed with a tremendous opportunity –– if not a great responsibility. They needed to show the world that the responsible parties had been removed from the situation, and that the Jewish people were now living virtuous lives.
In a big world in which anti-Semitism is on the rise, members of the global Jewish community must live lives bearing witness to the fact that the Jews have been forgiven by G-d for any misdeeds, that we have weeded out those who seek to do criminal acts, and that we aim to live virtuous lives, as best as we possibly can.
It is time for us to earn the title we were so nobly given by G-d many years ago, to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Avi Billet welcomes your comments and thoughts at avbillet at gmail.com.