A Ruined Beginning Is Not the End
Mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, had an insight into Parshat VaYakhel which at its most basic level answers a technical question, why does the Torah record the detailed list of the items which went into building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, twice? Had the Torah given us Parashiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh, and then spent Vayakhel saying the Jews did as Hashem commanded, we would not have lacked any obvious information. His answer does us the even greater failure of shedding light on failure and rebuilding.
He started with the view of Ramban, who said Hashem had always planned for the Jewish people to have a Mishkan, to ensconce the Presence the Jews experienced at Sinai, to have it always be with them, albeit in a more private form. (Rashi seems to disagree, says the Mishkan only became necessary once the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf and needed a place to atone their sins; Rashi’s idea raises fascinating issues of how and when people divert the divine plan for the world, and what our having done so means about the world we inhabit. But not for now.)
Ramban’s idea fits well with the theme we discussed in Parshat Tetzaveh, how prophecy and closeness with a communicative Divine were not supposed to end at Sinai or be limited to specific eras of Jewish history. Ideally, we were meant to have a place we could visit, where we would have a close-to-Sinai experience, and where Hashem would answer questions posed by kings and/or the nation as a whole.
Ramban assumes Terumah and Tetzaveh happened before the sin of the Golden Calf recorded in Ki Tissa; partially because he prefers to read the Torah as presenting events in chronological order whenever possible. The idea led RA”L zt”l to tell a parable which explains Vayakhel’s seemingly unnecessary repetition.
A couple becomes engaged to be married. As they prepare for their lives together, they order all the furnishings for the home they expect to inhabit. Soon before or just after the wedding, the wife has an affair (in pure halachic terms, were she to have had an actual affair, she could not stay married to the husband nor marry the partner in the affair; for the parable, she betrayed the husband seriously but not in a way which forced them to end their marriage). Through the good graces of an intermediary who convinces the husband to give her another chance, they decide to stay together.
They enter their new abode, where the furniture has been delivered, the furniture they ordered with such excitement and anticipation. Only the atmosphere has changed, the innocent love they had has been lost, a certain bittersweet quality has entered. It is the same table, the same lamp, the same couch, and yet it is irrevocably different, will always remind them of what they once had and will never have again.
He ended the thought on a hopeful note. The couple might recover, might rebuild their relationship. The process of finding their way forward might even take them to heights of love and connection they would not have reached without this challenge. Gone forever, though, was the original unblemished excitement when all was new and pristine.
It’s a message which could be said about all of humanity after the sin in the Garden, and about each of us as we progressed from innocent childhood to adulthood. We stumble, we go wrong, and we try to improve or recover. In some ways we do, in some ways we do not, and the best of us reach heights the rest of us never will. Bones which break heal stronger, they say.
Something has been irretrievably lost nonetheless. The Mishkan we eventually had could have become the place where the Jews connected with Hashem more fully or strongly even than at Sinai, perhaps. After the sin of the Golden Calf, it could never be the place of innocent joy it was meant to be.
Innocence has its value, and we struggle mightily to preserve and protect it where we can. Where we cannot, the game never ends, and success still beckons. But something has been lost forever.