Leonard Grunstein
Leonard Grunstein

From dissolute nightmare to builder’s dream

After the nightmare of the sordid and dissolute Sin of the Golden Calf reported in last week’s Torah portion[i], this week’s reading[ii] records a builder’s dream of the details of a complex critical path of construction and the splendid results.

The Torah reports the expert and precision production of sub-components and constituent elements and the climactic assembly by Moses into the glorious Tabernacle, with all of its marvelous accoutrements. Moses issues his seal of approval by resoundingly declaring that everything was constructed precisely in accordance with G-d’s detailed instructions and plans. There’s even a final accounting statement covering the materials used and work done. Moses then offers an extraordinary blessing that the Divine Presence grace the work of their hands. Why all this detail about a tent; albeit a special one and is there a link to the Sin of the Golden Calf?

It’s hard to fathom what motivated the people to participate in the grievous Sin of the Golden Calf. It occurred despite the overt display of G-d’s awesome and overwhelming power in effectuating the Exodus. Indeed, the Sin was perpetrated only a relatively short time after the ecstatic experience of Divine revelation at Mount Sinai[iii]. Somehow, these spectacular and otherwise defining moments did not have a long lasting effect. It’s particularly ironic that even as Moses was receiving the Tablets containing the Asseret HaDibrot[iv], the sin of the Golden Calf[v] violating its first and second precepts was already being committed. What could have triggered the reversion to idolatrous practice and precipitous decline into so dissolute a nightmare and near oblivion?

An analysis of the context yields clues as to what may have been their motivation. The Sin occurred after forty days of enforced inactivity, without any sense of accomplishment. There was eating, drinking and making merry[vi]; but, perhaps, this only served to fuel their feelings of inadequacy. They appear to have missed the satisfaction of doing something constructive. Even as slaves in Egypt, doing backbreaking work, they had the satisfaction of completing their work assignments, despite oppressive working conditions, including an artificially induced lack of adequate and ready supplies[vii]. Now, they were just biding their time and waiting impatiently for Moses’ return, which appeared inexplicably delayed. Is it any wonder that they sought an emotional outlet and some activity that would renew the high they felt at Mount Sinai? It appears that after the extraordinary and somewhat passive experience of the revelation at Mount Sinai, many had an exuberant and misdirected outburst of energy. They attempted to come closer to G-d, through the artifice of the Golden Calf[viii].

Moses mounted an outstanding defense of the people before G-d[ix], including making a sublime plea for mercy. G-d’s response to Moses’ impassioned plea was a concise and profound formulation[x] of G-d’s mercy, graciousness and other notable qualities[xi] that embrace our repentance. It was so memorable that it became the paradigm for asking G-d for forgiveness, incorporated into the Yom Kippur service, among others. The Talmud[xii] takes up this theme and concludes the Golden Calf incident occurred to emphasize how penitents could repent and receive atonement.

Moses succeeded in averting an awful decree and G-d granted the people a reprieve. However, how better to assure that the sin was not repeated again? After all, it was not every day that experienced the euphoria of the revelation at Mount Sinai. What would happen when the people felt low and out of sorts again; would they seek a substitute experience again like the Golden Calf to deal with their malaise or ennui? Curative action was required; what then was the antidote? To address the problem, a new approach was required. In response, G-d commanded the Tabernacle be constructed as atonement[xiii].

The Kli Yakar[xiv] explains that the rehabilitation process for the Sin of the Golden Calf was effectuated through the building of the Tabernacle, precisely as prescribed by G-d[xv]. Maimonides notes[xvi] this was a rectification designed to wean the Jewish people from the prevailing idolatrous practices. It served the purpose of transitioning the Jewish people into a more mature and enlightened form of worship, where spiritual attachment to G-d, could be achieved everyday, almost everywhere and even through otherwise mundane and prosaic activities.

The Bible reports that all of the people[xvii] were involved in the active and cooperative process of building the Tabernacle. It is suggested the experience of being fully engaged, as a group, in the project elevated personal feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment into a sense of unity, completeness and peace. Everyone had a role in the mission of building the Tabernacle, which served a higher purpose that transcended the individual. There is also a special dynamic that takes hold when building or performing any task as a group. Social and mental engagement is required in order to coordinate a team effort. Each individual in the group is responsible for performing his or her tasks, as specified. Not performing the task in accordance with the plan, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can seriously affect the outcome. Therefore, balance and boundaries must be maintained for the group to succeed. It’s suggested that his was also a part of the rectification process of the Tabernacle. As the Bible repeatedly stresses[xviii], the work was done as G-d commanded.

The Sfas Emes points out that precisely following the instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle, as G-d commanded, was not easy. People have a tendency to overdo, embellish, improvise and put their own personal mark on things. These are indicative of actions taken for the purpose of personal ego gratification instead of for the sake of Heaven. This is why the Bible text repeatedly declares that the Tabernacle, its component parts and accoutrements were built as commanded. The completed Tabernacle is referred to as the “Tabernacle of Testimony” because it testifies to the atonement the Jewish people achieved, through building it precisely as G-d commanded. It rectified the sin of the Golden Calf, where they didn’t act as G-d commanded. The performance of each Mitzvah as G-d commanded is a tangible way of demonstrating acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.

The mention of the Sabbath in the Biblical text[xix] describing the completion of Tabernacle is cogent. The Sabbath requires the cessation of work, as commanded by G-d. As the Sfas Emes notes, observing the Sabbath was an integral part of the process of rectification for the misconduct of doing things that were not prescribed by G-d. Unlike the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people now acted precisely as

G-d commanded and stopped the work of building the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. The building of the Tabernacle was also representative of the process of creation. Thus, just like G-d completed creation by terminating the creative process on the Sabbath[xx], so too were the Jewish people to rest on the Sabbath. It is the cessation of work on an object, which establishes its existence. It’s not finished until the person actually stops working on it. This is a critical element in life. As a recovering workaholic, I can testify that unless there is an overriding directive to stop work, it is never done. Yes, work can and should be rewarding, but it’s not an end in and of itself. The Sabbath and Jewish Holidays, like Passover, are overriding directives to cease creating and stop work for a fixed period of time. They are periods set aside for, among other things, both physical and spiritual refreshment, renewal, reflection and pure enjoyment. These are essential to the quest for meaning in life and appreciating its the benefits. As the Torah commands[xxi], six days shall you work and on the seventh day rest.

There is something unique about performing a Mitzvah. It’s not just about fulfilling an ordinary obligation, like paying back a debt, which also yields a sense of good feeling[xxii]. Some might suggest that when an obligation is performed, it is no longer a burden. It, therefore, might generate a sense of relief as a result of being unburdened. Is that all there is to the performance of the Mitzvot? It feels like there is something more to it than that.

Perhaps it is the very performance of the Mitzvot, which helps generate these intensely good feelings. When seemingly ordinary physical acts are infused with the purpose of performing a Mitzvah, they give meaning to life, because they involve a higher purpose. They enable a person to be a part of something greater than the individual.

It’s uncanny how good it feels to perform a Mitzvah, precisely as G-d commanded it be done. The Talmud[xxiii] analyzes the nature of being commanded to do a Mitzvah, as compared to the voluntary performance of the good deeds embodied in the Mitzvah, per se. It concludes that a person commanded to do a Mitzvah earns greater reward than someone performing the same act voluntarily. At first blush, this assertion seems counterintuitive. Don’t we applaud those who volunteer? However, as Tosafot[xxiv] explains, the basis for this conclusion is a psychological one. The person who has the obligation to perform may have greater anxiety and concerns about any failure to do so. Someone who is just acting on a good impulse can elect to stop, at any time, without consequence. On another level, it’s not unusual for a person to bristle at being told to do something, especially something he or she might be inclined to do anyway. It’s also natural to balk at just blindly following orders. It takes a great deal of effort, training and trust to overcome our instinctual nature[xxv] and instead follow G-d’s commandments; but, correspondingly, it can also be rewarding and yield great satisfaction. Perhaps, this is an implicit part of Moses’ blessing that the Divine Presence would rest on the work of their hands, as noted above.

Interestingly, the Talmud[xxvi] equates the notion of increasing peace throughout the world to being a builder. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z”L[xxvii] noted the entire nation of Israel was unified and at peace during the time they were building the Tabernacle. It is suggested that being fully engaged in a project, with a higher purpose, not only has the positive effect of conferring the satisfaction of accomplishment, but also infusing a sense of peace.

The Passover Holiday this year begins on Shabbat night, March 27, 2021. This means the preparations for what amounts to a three-day extravaganza (two in Israel) will have to be accomplished before Shabbat begins. Plan it and execute it like a builder. By all means, be involved in the entire process or as much of it as is possible. It’s worth the effort. As Avot[xxviii] reports, the reward is commensurate with the effort; or, in modern parlance, no pain no gain. Maimonides also notes[xxix] that doing it all with joy not only enhances the experience, it amplifies the reward.

Make Passover more meaningful by getting the children, other family members and friends involved in the preparations for the Holiday, during the week prior to Shabbat and Passover. This year, be the kind of builder the Talmud speaks of and live the dream.


[i] Parshat Ki Tisa, Exodus, Chapters 32-34.

[ii] The dual Parshiyot of Vayakel and Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-38:20).

[iii] Exodus 19:3-8.

[iv] Loosely translated as the Ten Statements and often mistranslated as the Ten Commandments.

[v] Exodus 32.

[vi] Exodus 24:11 and see Rashi commentary thereon. See also Numbers Rabbah 2:25 and Midrash Tanchuma, Behalotcha 16. Reference may also be made to the author’s post at the Times of Israel blogs, entitled: Be sanctified; Not Sanctimonious, dated 5/1/2020.

[vii] Exodus 5:4-19.

[viii] See the Sfas Emes commentary, by Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century Torah scholar and Gerer Rebbe, on Parshiyot Vayakel and Pekudei, which offers a number of striking observations with regard to the sin of the Golden Calf and its rectification through the building of the Tabernacle.

[ix] Rabbi Yonatan Eybeshitz, a leading 18th century Torah scholar (in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Ki Tisa s.v. Vatedaber), notes he even argued the legal defense of what amounts to a failure of consideration under a contract, inasmuch as the acceptance of the Torah and, by extension, the obligations thereunder was premised on receipt of the Land of Israel. Hence, Moses’ mention of G-d’s promise to deliver the Land of Israel to the Jewish people in his presentation (Genesis 32:13), which otherwise appears like a non-sequitur. He was in effect arguing, since G-d had not yet delivered, the Jewish people were not liable for non-performance under the contract.

[x] Exodus 34:5-9.

[xi] Known as the Thirteen Midot (13 Attributes) of Divine mercy.

[xii] BT Avoda Zara 4b.

[xiii] See Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:32.

[xiv] By Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, a 16th century Torah scholar, in the Kli Yakar commentary on Exodus 39:43.

[xv] Exodus 39:42-43.

[xvi] See, for example, Exodus 39:42; Exodus 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29 and 31; and Exodus 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 29 and 32.

[xvii] See Exodus 39:32 and the Sforno’s commentary thereon. See also Exodus 35:21 and the Ramban’s commentary thereon.

[xviii] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 51:8, as well as, Rashi commentary on Exodus 31:18. See also Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:32. However, Nachmanides, in his commentary on Leviticus 8:2 and Exodus 25:1, appears to disagree.

[xix] Exodus 35:1-3.

[xx] Genesis 2:2-3.

[xxi] Exodus 35:2.

[xxii] See the Mishna, in BT Avodah Zara, at page 2a, as well as, Talmudic discussion at page 6b and Tosafot commentary thereon.

[xxiii] See BT Kiddushin 31a, Bava Kamma 38a and 87a and Avoda Zara 3a.

[xxiv] See Tosafot commentary on BT Kiddushin 31a. See also the Ritva commentary as to Kiddushin 31a.

[xxv] See Tosafot commentary on BT Avodah Zara 3a.

[xxvi] BT Brachot 64a.

[xxvii] See Team Building by Rabbi Sacks, on Parshat VaYakel, February 17, 2014, in Covenant and Conversation online at rabbisacks.com.

[xxviii] Avot 5:23.

[xxix] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 9:1.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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