the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
From Crisis to Tabernacle:
The Tabernacle in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s World
Rabbi Oren Duvdevani
Center for Basic Jewish Studies
Parashat Terumah introduces an innovative idea. After the Holy One, blessed be He, reveals Himself to the patriarchs, and after He reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush and to the Israelites and the Egyptians on the shores of the Red Sea, and after the Israelites hear the commandment at Mount Sinai, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness” (Ex. 20:4), the Torah commands the Israelites to build a Tabernacle, a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Indeed, this commandment is described in language that has a measure of personification: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). 
To a large extent Parashat Terumah
can be seen as a direct continuation of the events at the end of Parashat
Yitro: setting up an altar at
The secret of the
Tabernacle is that the Glory that dwelt over
Ein Mukdam U-meuhar ba-Torah
Even though Nahmanides’ approach
is fully consonant with the plain sense of the text and the order of the
scriptural narrative, Rashi chose to follow the
homiletic interpretation of the Sages, according to which the story of the
Tabernacle took place later, as atonement for making the golden calf.
For example, Midrash
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among
them. When was this chapter on the
Tabernacle told to Moses? On the Day of
Atonement itself, even though the parashah on
the Tabernacle precedes the account of the golden calf. Rabbi
Following this midrash, Rashi gives the following interpretation (Ex. 31:18):
He gave Moses, etc. There is no chronological order in [the events related in] the Torah. The sin of the golden calf preceded the commandment to build the Tabernacle by many days, for the tablets were broken on the seventeenth of Tamuz, and on the Day of Atonement the Holy One, blessed be He, became reconciled with Israel, and on the following day donations began to be gathered for the Tabernacle, which was erected on the first of Nisan.
The statement that construction of the Tabernacle and the
commandment to make a Tabernacle were a result of the sin of the golden calf
seems problematic both in principle and in terms of the plain sense of the
text. So we are prompted to ask what
motivated the authors of the midrash and
Rashi, who followed in their lead.
In our investigation we will see that
underlying their approach is a fundamental notion about the essence of the
revelation of the Divine Presence to
It is well known that the words of the Torah may be sparing
in one place, and copious in another. A
later attempt to establish a sanctuary is described in II Samuel.
In chapter 7 King David expresses to the prophet
Nathan his desire to build a House for the Lord.
Initially Nathan responds favorably to the
idea, but later he is informed of the Lord’s reservations.
Not until chapter 24 do we learn that due to
David’s sin in counting the people, atonement was made by offering a sacrifice
So we can say that the episode in which an altar was built
Crisis, Distance and Isolation
Underlying this approach is a fundamental theological
position regarding the relationship between human beings and the Holy One, blessed
be He – an important idea underlying the notion of the
Revelation of the Deity through times of crisis and the depths of despair is a principle in Judaism. Sometimes the Deity does not reveal Himself to those souls who are somewhat happy; He reveals himself to the dumbstruck soul, stricken with weariness and fatigue… G-d is revealed through suffering and tragedy, when the individual or the community are in hardship and distress … it is precisely … out of the cry of misery that the kiss of G-d is wafted aloft. 
Prayer is not Ecstasy
Therefore, Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained, the element of beseeching and entreating is so fundamental and important in prayer.  The main substance and power of prayer lies in entreaty. Rabbi Soloveitchik was of the opinion that the Halakhah shuns the view of prayer as a total spiritual experience of ecstatic separation of the soul from the body, and is rather interested in the broken human being, the actual human body and its psychosomatic condition.  The fundamental position of the person praying is “a prayer of the lowly man when he is faint” (Ps. 102:1), and the basic definition of prayer (paralleling the sacrificial service): “True sacrifice to G-d is a contrite spirit; G-d, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart” (Ps. 51:19).
On more than one occasion I have heard my teacher Rabbi Lichtenstein say that Rabbi Soloveitchik believed this point to be so important that he even found that halakhic definitions of the requirement of prayer lend expression to his idea. This is illustrated by a bold remark made by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Maimonides’ exceptional position that the obligation of praying comes from the Torah, rather than being a rabbinic requirement, is well-known (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 5). Nahmanides takes issue with Maimonides in his glosses and maintains that if the Torah contains a commandment to pray, it only applies in time of trouble. The great innovation made by Rabbi Soloveitchik was to perceive that actually Maimonides and Nahmanides are in agreement and that prayer indeed is only obligatory “in time of trouble.” However in Maimonides’ view the immanent and existential human condition is one of crisis, so that a person is always “in time of trouble” and continually in need of Heaven’s mercy.
It seems to me that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach can explain the exegetical approach used by Rashi and the midrash. It is precisely in the dynamic of the loved one who hides from his beloved,  in the great crisis of sin that sets G-d at a distance, that the revelation of the Divine Presence expressed in the words “that I may dwell among them” can take place . 
Maimonides is well-known to have vehemently opposed any attempt at
personification and to have devoted extensive sections of his works to this
subject. Time and again he stresses that
this verse is not to be taken in its plain sense.
In his Mishneh
Torah he interprets the command as preparing a place for sacrificial
service: “It is a positive commandment
to prepare a House of the Lord for sacrifices to be offered in it…
The Tabernacle made by Moses was interpreted
in the Torah as being for the moment, for it is said, because you have not
come to the allotted haven…” (Hilkhot
1.1). This idea is expressed even more
forcefully in Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, chapter 32):
“It is therefore according to the nature of
man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been
accustomed. Now G-d sent Moses to make a
kingdom of priests and a holy nation … The Israelites were commanded … you
shall serve the Lord your G-d… But
the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode
of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing
animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those
images, and to burn incense before them…
It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of G-d, … that He did not
command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to
obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who
generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made
the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the
service of G-d and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not
fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in
thought, and not by any action. For
this reason G-d allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to
His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and
of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same
manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; comp., and they shall make Me a
sanctuary, to have the altar erected to His name.”
From these remarks it ostensibly follows that
to a large extent the commandments to build the Tabernacle and the
 This reservation is apparently what underlies Maimonides’ remarks in Guide for the Perplexed, loc. sit.
 “U- vikashtem mi-sham,” loc. sit., pp. 114-145.
 Rabbi Soloveitchik often supported his words with examples from Scripture.
 It should be stressed that the halakhah which stipulates that words of praise should precede supplication ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkho Tefillah 1.2) was interpreted by my mentor in the same spirit. In his opinion, prefacing with praise also stems from a sense of immanent rending. Cf. loc. sit., p. 247.
 Loc. sit., p. 265.
 As Rabbi Soloveitchik elucidated at length in his essay, U- vikashem mi-sham, loc. sit., pp. 117-121, 137, 140-146.
 It is of the utmost importance to stress that this does not mean the sin was a positive step. Such an approach has an element of Sabbatianism and is very dangerous, since it condones the idea of sin for its own sake. What we mean to say is that man’s function is to channel the crisis and transform it into a vehicle for bringing spiritual elation. Cf. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, “Averah le-Shmah – Hirhurim be- Halakhah u-ve-Mahashavah,” in He-Aher, bein ha-Adam le-Atzmo u-le-Zulato (ed. H. Deutsch and M. Ben Sasson), Tel Aviv 2001, pp. 99-125.