It is precisely in that “location” where the Jew finds himself in the lowest of places, at the very nadir of his or her life, that G-d says: “this is precisely the place in which I would like to dwell!”
THE SANDWICHED PARSHA
This week’s parsha is “sandwiched” in the narrative of the construction of the Mishkan. The two preceding Torah portions (Truma and Tetzaveh) discuss the construction of the Mishkan, its vessels and the priestly garments, as do the next two Torah portions of VaYakhel and P’kudei. This configuration suggests that this week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, represents the center and core of the theme of the Mishkan.
The Mishkan is arguably the single most discussed theme in the Torah. Whereas hundreds of laws are contained within one or two Torah portions, hundreds of verses are devoted to the solitary theme of the Mishkan!
Why is the Mishkan so important as to warrant such incredible attention to its every detail?
Its importance lies in the one verse the Torah uses to introduce the construction of the Mishkan: “Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” This sanctuary is G-d’s instrument through which He reveals Himself to each and every Jew and beyond, to the entire world. The Mishkan, the structure that channeled G-d’s presence into the world, represented the ultimate purpose for which the world was created: to transform it into a dwelling place for G-d.
It is, thus, surprising to discover that the central theme of Ki Sisa is the Jewish people’s greatest indiscretion! In Moses’ absence—when he was on the mountain to receive the Torah—they created and worshipped a golden calf! Why would the Torah insert this tragic episode of national shame and degradation in the center of the Torah’s most cherished subject—the construction of the Mishkan? Why would the most serious deviation from G-d’s plan be featured as the central narrative of the Mishkan which represents the ultimate in fidelity to G-d’s plan?
Furthermore, the Talmud (P’sachim 3a) establishes a rule concerning the Torah. The Torah avoids saying something disparagingly even about a non-kosher animal. The Talmud tells us that the Torah will often employ a euphemism to describe a negative phenomenon. And the lesson we derive from this fact, the Talmud states, is to avoid using negative language.
To be sure, when dealing with matters of Jewish law, one must be clear and unequivocal. We cannot afford to have people misunderstand the meaning of a given prohibition because the law was vague. But, whenever there is no need for a clear lesson, the Torah avoids negative language.
In light of this fact, the question arises: why would the Torah devote so much space to describing the sin of the golden calf, arguably the most negative of experiences in the Torah? Whereas some of the most important laws and narratives are condensed into but a few verses or words, the Torah devoted thirty-two verses in this week’s parsha and over twenty verses in the book of Deuteronomy to this painful subject. Why pay so much attention to the small details of this horrible transgression?
DEFINITION OF TACHTONIM
When the Midrash establishes that the purpose of creation is for G-d to have a Sanctuary in our world, the Midrash actually describes the location wherein G-d wants to dwell as: tachtonim. Tachtonim literally translates as “down below,” referring to the lowest possible level of existence.
What can be lower than a nation who saw the greatest miracles of all times, saw and heard G-d’s revelation at Mount Sinai, heard directly from G-d to not make graven images and worship them, and then, just forty short days later, creates an idol and worships it?!
And it is precisely in that “location,” where the Jew finds himself in the lowest of places, at the very nadir of his or her life, that G-d says: “this is precisely the place in which I would like to dwell!”
Recognizing how low we have descended and turning around our lives – that is what it’s all about. All of existence awaits that U-turn. Obviously, G-d does not want us to fall, but there is nothing more desirous and precious to G-d than when we bounce back from the lowest point to which we can degenerate. Finding G-d in places that appear most distant from Him is the very expression of G-d’s purpose for existence.
The Talmud expresses this sentiment in yet another form: “The place where a Baal T’shuva (one who returns to the right path) stands, tzaddikim (perfectly righteous people) cannot stand.” The tzaddik introduces G-d into a place that has already been illuminated with G-d’s light. The Baal T’shuva introduces light into the darkest of places—into the ultimate of tachtonim.
Thus, the insertion of the golden calf episode, in the middle of detailed instructions about the Mishkan, was intended to underscore that G-d chooses to dwell precisely in those places where He would most likely not be found.
THE LOWEST AND HIGHEST GENERATION
The above has particular relevance to us in these last moments of living in the darkness of exile. The term tachtonim—the lowest place—can also be applied to the end of the exile. We are situated in this tachtonim of time and, in many respects, also the tachtonim in terms of our spiritual sophistication.
Many tend to look back nostalgically to the good old days when there was so much more light and we had so many more spiritual and G-dly people. Could G-d really have the same positive feelings for our generation that worships its own version of the golden calf? Are we not so far from G-d’s purpose and plan?
The answer is an emphatic no! On the contrary!
It is precisely in our age with all of its darkness where G-d’s plan is fully realized. If G-d wanted a dwelling place in the lowest and lowliest of places then it is in our day and age—the tachtonim—that His plan will finally be actualized. Our generation, notwithstanding all the obstacles and challenges, has responded admirably, as no generation before us.
Certainly, our forebears had to contend with far more persecution. Certainly, life was so much more difficult in the olden days. But for the Jew, there were few if any other choices. Our generation, by contrast, is blessed or cursed (depending on one’s vantage point) with a plethora of choices, most of which are not compatible with the Torah’s view of life.
The fact that so many of us have made the right choice is noble and particularly praiseworthy and earns us the right to say to G-d: “We have risen from the darkest moments of history. The Holocaust, Soviet oppression, Western assimilation etc. and we have created a dwelling place for You in the darkest of places and times. We are more than ready for Moshiach and Redemption at which time You will finally make Your presence felt in the lowest of realms. We did our part to turn things around and bring light into the darkness. Now, we respectfully, but firmly, demand of You, to complete the task by bringing us Moshiach and the Final Redemption.
REPAIRING THE SHATTERED TABLETS
The above, that the golden calf reflects G-d’s desire to dwell even, nay, especially, in the darkest of places is reflected in one of the specifics of this narrative.
When Moses was still on the mountain, G-d informed him that the Jewish nation had degenerated into idolatry by making and worshipping the golden calf. Moses then descended from the mountain and, when he saw how they were dancing around the golden calf, Moses threw the tablets down and shattered them.
The Jerusalem Talmud asks why, when Moses heard directly from G-d that they worshipped the golden calf, he did not react. Only after he actually witnessed their orgy did he shatter the Tablets.
The Jerusalem Talmud answers: one cannot compare hearing about something to actually personally witnessing it.
Seforno provides another answer: When Moses heard that his people constructed and worshipped the golden calf, it did not crush him as much as when he saw they were thoroughly enjoying the orgy. To sin and express remorse for the transgression tends to temper the severity of it and is the first step in the process of T’shuva-return. When one not only fails to regret the lack of inner fortitude to resist temptation, but, in addition, he or she thoroughly enjoys it, it poses a major stumbling block to one’s return. Guilt for making the wrong decisions in life is as important as feeling physical pain, without which one can never find a cure. Moses felt that their situation was now helpless and was therefore moved to shatter the Tablets.
In truth, the shattering of the Tablets shattered their resistance to G-d and enabled them to introduce light into their darkest moment. They did do T’shuva. And that was precisely the way G-d demonstrated His intention to dwell even in what may appear to be the most G-d forsaken place.
There is another lesson in the above. If enjoying the transgression caused the shattering of the Tablets, then doing a Mitzvah permeated with joy is what will restore the integrity of those Tablets.