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The Golden Calf and the Mishkan

This week's parashah, Terumah, begins the section where God gives Moses the instructions on how to build the Mishkan/Dwelling Place - the portable sanctuary that will follow the people through the desert.

It seems strange that following the spiritual high of the Revelation at Sinai the first thing that God tells Moses once he ascends the mountain for his 40-day stay is what material objects are needed for the building of the Mishkan.

Aviva Zornberg mentions two different classical interpretations of this narrative. The first states that the Mishkan is given by God to the people because after the encounter at Sinai they are holy and prepared to accept the instructions and to receive the gift of a divine dwelling place in their midst. This interpretation also views the Mishkan as a kind of "portable Sinai," as much of the language describing the Mishkan echoes the description of Sinai. In this way the Mishkan enables the people to take the unique spiritual high of Sinai with them wherever they go.

However, Rashi and others have another interpretation, which is actually more prevalent. This interpretation again relies on the belief that there is no true chronological order to the Torah, and so the instructions for the building of the Mishkan are placed after the building of the Golden Calf (rather than before, as it would appear from reading the actual text). In this interpretation the gold used for the Mishkan "atones for the gold of the calf." This interpretation is often read simply as meaning that, after the Golden Calf, God realized that the people needed a physical representation of the Divine presence, and so God designed the Mishkan. However, in Zornberg's analysis it becomes clear that it is much deeper and more complex than that.

In my attempt to simplify a complex essay I will omit much of Zornberg's subtleties, so I urge you to read the essay on Terumah in "The Particulars of Rapture." However, in my understanding of Zornberg's analysis it would seem that the Golden Calf and the Mishkan are inextricably linked to one another, just as the unconscious and conscious mind are part of a greater whole that makes up the human psyche. As the unconscious mind gives us a glimpse into things that the conscious mind cannot express directly, and yet needs to express, so the Golden Calf expresses needs, desires and fantasies (including those which are taboo or prohibited) that the people are unable to express directly.

In the non-chronological reading of the narrative the building of the Calf expresses all of these unconscious fantasies, while the building of the Mishkan as "atonement" for the Golden Calf serves a role similar to that of the Freudian superego. In its simplest sense the superego is the part of us that we might call the conscience. It helps us to keep control of our fantasies and desires so that they then get expressed in "appropriate" ways. Without a developed superego we risk turning our deepest and darkest fantasies into inappropriate, antisocial behavior.

In our narrative the building of the Golden Calf can be seen as the fantasies of the people's unconscious being allowed to run amok. Without a developed communal superego (after all, the rules and regulations of Sinai were still new and they didn't even have them all in writing yet!) the people allowed their needs and fantasies - their desires for a physical manifestation of the Divine - and more - to take over.

By placing the directions for the building of the Mishkan after the Golden Calf it becomes part of the conclusion of the Shemot narrative in which the Mishkan is actually constructed. It also becomes representative of the creation of the communal superego, the sense of right and wrong that links them to the Divine and to Sinai. The solid gold of the Mishkan, as atonement for the Golden Calf, becomes an almost alchemical transformation of the molten gold of the Calf. The molten, burning gold of the Calf, representing the heat of the passion and fantasies of the newly freed Israelites, becomes solid, centered, with a connection to the Divine and "God's will" through the building of the Mishkan. And so the Mishkan not only atones for the building of the Calf, but is the "appropriate" (superego guided) expression of the people's desires that replaces the base, id-driven desires represented by the Golden Calf.

As the descendants of these Israelites this reading can remind us not only of the important of personally maintaining a balance of id and superego, instinctive desires and conscience, but it also reminds us of the importance of balancing these as a community. We all have desires as individuals within a community, but the community also has desires and needs. We must be careful when trying to turn our desires into reality that we maintain the sense of balance. As we build and live in our communal Mishkan, our sanctuary, let us remember that the effort that we use to build our Mishkan (our community) can also be used to build a Golden Calf if we don't maintain that balance. We must always keep the good and the needs of the community at the core of our decisions, and remember that they are always linked to the holiness of the work that we do. If we don't keep this in mind then we are in danger of setting the stage for, God forbid, our own communal Golden Calf.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah