The placement of Parshiyot Terumah and Titzaveh, which contain both plans for the building of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary in the desert), its accouterments and the wardrobe of the priests who served in the Mishkan, before the story of egel hazahav (the golden calf), proved a challenge for the rabbinic sages. How could the children of Israel have succumbed to this grievous sin after committing themselves to God at Sinai and God’s providing for their religious needs? This fall seemed to them almost inconceivable!
One midrashic tradition, apologetically recorded that the Torah intentionally recorded the plans for the Mishkan to show that despite the sin of the egel hazahav, God did not reject the children of Israel, instead ordering them a remedy before their actual sin:
Rather, a teaching came up in their hands from the exile (Babylonia), and they taught in its regard that He (God) skipped over the incident of the egel (the golden calf) for them and [placed] the act of the Tabernacle before it. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:12)
A later midrash offers an even more daring interpretation. It claims that the stories in the Torah were not recorded chronologically and that the commands regarding the Mishkan were actually given after the sin of the egel hazahav to meet the religious needs of God’s people after they had gone astray:
And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8) – When was the parashah related to the Mishkan said to Moshe? It was on Yom Hakippurim (the Day of Atonement) – [According to rabbinic tradition, God forgave the children of Israel for the sin of the egel hazahav on Yom Kippur.] [All this] despite the fact that the Torah portion describing the Mishkan precedes the incident of the egel hazahav.
Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Shalom said: There is actually no such thing as preceding or following in the Torah, as is said: No path of life she traces, her path wanders, and she does not know. (Proverbs 5:6). [Namely,] the paths of the Torah and its parshiyot wander. Hence, it was on the Day of Atonement that He told Moses: Make Me a Sanctuary.
From where do we know this to be so? Moshe ascended [Mount Sinai] on the sixth day of Sivan, and remained there for forty days and forty nights. He stayed there another forty days, and then a final forty days, totaling one hundred and twenty days. And you find that it must have been on Yom Kippur that they were forgiven and on that day that the Holy One Blessed be He told them: Make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell therein, so that the nations might know that He had forgiven them for the golden calf. It was called the Mishkan of the Testimony, for it bore witness to the nations of the world that the Holy One, blessed be He, dwelt within your Mishkan… (Tanhuma Terumah 8)
The sages used what seemed to them an exegetical difficulty as an opportunity to teach an important lesson. The upshot of these two midrashim is awareness of the rabbinic sages that human beings are intrinsically religious by nature and that if this gap in their lives is not filled with positive content, it is likely to be filled with negative content. With this thought in mind, they understood the purpose of the Mishkan to be two-fold: one was for the children of God to have a sense of intimacy with God, but on an entirely different plain, it was intended as a means for channeling their religious energies in a positive and constructive way.
These same challenges face us today. In the same way that the Mishkan gave the desert generation a way to channel its inner spiritual needs, Judaism can serve as our vehicle do the same.