Parshas Terumah begins the first of four Torah portions that discuss the portable sanctuary known as the Mishkan (or Tabernacle.) These are very intricate parshas that detail everything from how the Menorah is made to what the Kohanim wear, to what color the curtains should be. But within the middle of these four parshas is parsha Ki Sisa, the event of the Jews worshiping the golden calf. Obviously, the sin of the golden calf and the giving of the Mishkan are related.
After seeing God at Mt. Sinai, the Jews are at an extraordinarily high level. In fact, the highest level they have ever reached. We were going to be a nation of Kohanim with connection to Hashem not seen since the Garden of Eden. But after the sin, the Jews botched it and lose that connection forever (or until Moshiach comes). God is going to need a new system for us to connect to Him. So He gives us the Mishkan, a place were they can tangibly see God like they did at Mt. Sinai. So that’s nice. But why does the Torah start giving mitzvahs about the Mishkan here in Terumah, before Ki Sisa?
There are essentially two schools of thought on it. One is given by Rashi who says that the Torah is written out of order. That Mt. Sinai happens, then the golden calf, and then we are given the Mishkan. And that’s a pretty widely accepted approach as many other parts of the Torah are considered to be out of order (Yehuda and Tamar in Vayeishev, Yisro at the beginning of parshas Yisro, etc.) But Ramban disagrees and says unless it is explicitly necessary for understanding, the events of the Torah happen as they are written. So rather than try to answer who is right, the better question to delve into is what does each answer mean for us.
I’m Not Out of Order You’re Out of Order!
If the Torah is out of order as Rashi says, then everything makes sense. It isn’t easy to relate to an invisible and infinite being and the sin of the golden calf showed the difficultly of that. So Hashem gave the Jews the Mishkan as a compromise for human nature. But if that’s the case, why is the Torah written this way? Why not have the events of Ki Sisa follow immediately after Mishpatim, then have Teruamah and the rest of the Mishkan parshas?
For this, Rav Soloveitchik gives over the lesson that the way most of us think about history is that it is a series of cause and effect. Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets shot, World War I breaks out. Gold is discovered in California, San Francisco eventually gets a football team named the 49ers. But the way to look at Jewish history is not cause and effect but rather refuah before the makkah. When there is a problem that faces the Jewish people, the solution has already been given. We may have lost the Temple and were sent into exile, but writings in Navi’im clearly says that we will return once again to the land of Israel. Sure enough, mid 20th century we’re already coming back. So when things look dark rather than despair, we should reflect on what we have, because chances are, Hashem has already given us the tools make what we need.
Torah says as Torah Does
However if we take a look at the alternative, that the Torah is written in order, it changes what the Mishkan should mean to us. According to Ramban, Hashem always intended to give us the Mishkan regardless of whether we sinned or not. But supposedly if we were a nation of Kohanim, we shouldn’t need a place to see God. We’d have stayed at the level of post Sinai, with perfect clarity in God’s existence and we’d be able to do sacrifices where ever we wanted. Why would we need a Mishkan?
My own personal understanding is that the Torah is telling us that despite how far we grow, how great we become, we will always need community. Even when Adam was tending the Garden of Eden, living at the highest spiritual level of human potential, Hashem knew it was not good for man to be alone. So too, did the Jewish people need a place for communal prayer. Community allows for growth, perspective, responsibility, and support. The Mishkan isn’t just a place where the Jews could experience God, it was a place for the nation to thrive in a shared experience, just as the revelation at Sinai was. And even if they hadn’t sinned with the golden calf at the point they did, I’m sure that even with their high level of kedusha, without community, they would have eventually.