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The wise people performing the sacred work (of building the Tabernacle) came and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than enough (contributions) for the building…” (So) they proclaimed throughout the camp saying, “Let no man or woman bring any more… contributions…” – and the people were prevented from bringing (36:4-6).
Moses’ earlier appeal to the Israelites for resources with which to build the Temple yielded impressive results. So much so, that they enthusiastically gave more than they could immediately make use of.
Why, then, were further donations no longer welcome – or even acceptable? Running the Tabernacle, as well as building it, was undoubtedly an expensive business. The excess contributions could surely have been traded into the funds needed for the costly daily and special-occasion communal offerings.
In answering this question, it is important to consider the reasons brought by some of the commentators for the commandment for the building of the Tabernacle in the first place.
The Midrash Tahnuma (Teruma, 8) brings the tradition that the original command of building of the Tabernacle (25:8) was given after the sin of the Golden Calf, implying that this part of the Torah is not presented in chronological order. The purpose for the building of the Tabernacle was to show the nations of the world that the Israelites had been forgiven for the Sin of the Golden Calf. Thus G-d’s saying, “They shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them” (ibid) applied even after they had rejected Him in this manner - so soon after the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The S’forno takes this idea one step further. Before the Sin of the Golden Calf, G-d shunned any act to represent Him physically – saying, “You may make for Me an altar of earth” (20:21) – out of the humblest of materials. After that sin, they showed themselves to be on a less high spiritual level, so they could only experience the greater Divine Presence in the very formal situation of the Tabernacle – constructed out of the most precious materials, and run by those who had not been involved in the Sin of the Golden Calf – namely the Levites, and the priestly line emanating from that tribe.
The Chinuch stresses the educational impact of the Tabernacle on the Israelites. He writes, in reference to the commandment of building the Tabernacle, “just as G-d wished to send the Israelites prophets to teach them the path they should follow, He also wished to establish a place on earth which would benefit Man and increase his merit.” He develops this idea by explaining the effect of concrete action on the human mind, writing that, our hearts cannot be purified by mere lip service, by our crying out to the four walls, “I have sinned.” Rather, states the Chinuch, “it is necessary (for a person who has sinned) to undertake a considerable burden – removing goats from their pen, and bring them to the Temple…” In other words, Man is limited by nature. As part of the human experience, he must learn about and relate to the abstract through the concrete means his intellect is capable of absorbing.
Thus, combining these explanations, the purpose of the Tabernacle was as follows. It was to be the center of Israelite worship after the Sin of the Golden Calf: the place where the Divine Presence of G-d was at its most intense. And the form of worship was designed to make the most effective impact on those who participated.
When G-d gave the Torah to the Israelites, He gave it in a very dramatic way – “there was thunder, lightening, and a heavy cloud over the camp, and the sound of the Shofar was very strong: and the people in the camp trembled” (19:16). Indeed, the impact was so great that the Israelites begged Moses “You speak to us and we will listen: let not G-d speak to us, lest we will die” (19:16). The enthusiasm to hear The Truth was very great – at that moment. But it did not last – at any rate longer than forty days. The Israelites certainly had enthusiasm, but they failed as they had subsequently failed to develop a commitment based on that enthusiasm.
This principle helps to answer the original question. Had the Israelites not been prevented in showing passion for the building of the Tabernacle – to the extent of parting with more resources than were needed at the time, they would have showed enthusiasm – but little else. They would have gone home with the idea of, “we gave, we did our duty, and now let them get on with it”. Enthusiasm, but no subsequent development of a commitment. By having some of their contributions refused, they were being told, in effect, to turn their enthusiasm into a long-term commitment. They would do this by observing the commandments and putting their funds to a positive use within the framework of the Torah – ranging from giving tzedaka to subsequently bringing offerings to the Temple.
Some time ago, a student educated abroad approached me, wishing to enroll on one of my courses. He claimed to have obtained some knowledge in the subject area in his previous country – but – would I please set him plenty of reading to do during the summer vacation, in anticipation of and in preparation for the course? I agreed, but I tactfully tried to suggest that he would gain far more from the work were he to come to it with a fresh, rested, and open mind rather than with one cluttered by self-taught and possibly half-baked heavy academic material. When the course started, he was out there – asking question after question – at the beginning. Within a week he went into semi-hibernation – and getting any form of written work out of him at all was a chore in itself. From thereon, his attendance record went downhill, and his overall understanding of the topics studied was so poor that I had to advise him against even attempting the final examination assessment. It was a pity to see a bright, potentially successful young man losing his interest and grip so early on… slipping deeper into a morass of work arrears, indifference, and boredom.
What should have this young man done? Instead of showing an initial burst of enthusiasm, he ought to have worked consistently throughout the course, following the instruction given and supplementing it from suitable sources within his ability range. That would have given him the success he sought and failed to obtain… And it was that type of enthusiasm that the wise builders of the Temple and Moses himself sought to prevent in order that the Tabernacle (– as well as the Temples after them) should be a symbol and focus of permanent Torah commitment.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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