After the long list of civil laws, Parashat Mishpatim ends with a few verses describing the confirmation of the Sinai covenant, and Moshe going up the mountain (Shemot 24:1-18). According to the approach of Ramban, where the passages are in chronological order, this section is a very natural lead into the laws of the Mishkan found immediately after in Parashat Terumah. (Rashi, on the other hand, says that the laws of the Mishkan were given after the episode of the Golden Calf.)
“Israel accepted to do all that He would command them through the hand of Moshe, and He made a covenant with them about all of this; behold, from then they are His as a people […] And behold, they are holy and it is fitting that there should be a temple among them for His presence to dwell among them. And hence He first commanded about the matter of the tabernacle.” (Ramban on Shemot 25:1)
We also read in the end of Mishpatim of God’s presence dwelling on Mt. Sinai, which is parallel to the manner it will dwell in the Mishkan. As Cassuto writes in his commentary to Shemot 24:16, “the initial word vayishkon (Shemot 24:16) ‘and dwelt’ gives here, at the end of the section, a preliminary inkling of the subject of the next section, to wit, the work of the mishkan ‘the dwelling place (of God’, and a nexus is thereby formed between the two sections.”
This concept is emphasized by the use of shachan in one of the first verses of Terumah: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Shemot 25:8)
All this leads to a question: Why not just start the parasha dealing with the construction of the Miskhan from Shemot 24:1? As we’ve noted previously, Mishpatim is dedicated to the civil laws of a just society. Why add on a section at the end which deals with altars and God’s presence?
Rabbi Amnon Bazak, in his book Nekudat Peticha, brings an interesting idea, which could provide us with an answer.
He points out that there is a dark side in the events of chapter 24. In Shemot 24:9-11 we read:
“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”
By saying that God “did not raise His hand against the leaders” there is an implication that they actually were deserving of punishment for ascending, since earlier God said, “Moses alone shall come near the LORD; but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him” (Shemot 24:2).
Who were these “leaders of the Israelites”? R. Bazak deduces that it must be referring to Nadav and Avihu, since later we see that the two of them are replaced with Yehoshua and Hur (Shemot 24:13-14). While Nadav and Avihu weren’t punished for inappropriately approaching the site of God’s revelation at Sinai (other than losing their role as Moshe’s assistants), they later repeated their transgression and were killed (Vayikra 10:1).
So it is possible that to avoid any undue focus on the problematic activity of Nadav and Avihu, the Sages decided to start the discussion of the Mishkan in chapter 25 of Shemot.
But beyond the specific actions of Nadav and Avihu, there may be a broader message as well. Having a mishkan, with God’s presence, is a tremendous opportunity to draw close to the divine. But it is also fraught with danger, if we make it about what may benefit us, instead of serving God. And so by starting the parasha that focuses on the Mishkan with the detailed laws, instead of a story of personal experience, we learn that when approaching the Holy, we must ensure we are following God’s instructions to the letter of the law.