Parshat Vayakhel: The Connection Between the Sin of the Calf and the Mishkan

Rabbanit Amira Ra’anan teaches Responsa Literature at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

WhatsApp Image 2024 02 19 at 09.50.25 1Midrash Rabbah on Shemot says: 

“This is analogous to a young man who entered a city. He saw them collecting charity, and they said to him: ‘Give’, and he gave, until they said to him: ‘It is enough.’ So too, Israel gave gold for the calf until [Aharon] said to them: ‘Enough’.  So, too, they donated gold for the Mishkan until [Moshe] said to them: ‘Enough’. As it is written: “Moshe commanded, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying: Let neither man nor woman perform any more labor for the gifts of the Sanctuary; and the people ceased bringing. The labor was sufficient for all the labor to perform it, and beyond” (Shemot 36:6–7). The Holy One blessed be He said: Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of the calf.  The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: When you crafted the calf, you angered Me with: “This [eleh] is your god” (Shemot 32:4). Now that you have crafted the Mishkan, with these [be’eleh] I am reconciled with you. That is [the meaning of the words]: “These are the reckonings [pekudei] of the Mishkan.” (Shemot Rabbah 51:8)

The building of the Mishkan can be divided into two parts: The actual construction, and the sacred service performed therein. Similarly, the Sin of the Calf can also be divided into two parts: the making of the calf, and the worship thereof.  In accordance with the quote, above, that the Mishkan was an atonement for the Sin of the Calf, one would expect that each stage in the making of the Mishkan would atone for its counterpart in the making of the golden calf.

The Talmud says: “Rav Yehuda said: The tribe of Levi did not perform idolatry, as it is stated: ‘Moshe stood at the gate of the camp, and said: ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him” (Yoma 66b). Hence, we might expect that the tribe of Levi – which did not sin in the matter of the calf – would lead the construction of the Mishkan. However, instead of instructing the tribe of Levi to build the Mishkan, Betzalel son of Uri is charged with the construction. It follows then that it is precisely the Israelites – who had sinned with the calf – and not the Levites who must build the Mishkan, the place of atonement. 

In keeping with this approach, one would expect that the Israelites who had sinned with the calf would also be the ones to serve in the Mishkan. Yet, we find that the sacred service in the Mishkan is carried out by the tribe of Levi, who did not sin with the calf. Although the Israelites are called to participate in the work of the Mishkan by bringing offerings, donations, and the like, the leadership is entrusted to those who did not sin – the Levites.

The Midrash Rabbah on Shemot (41:7) says, “At that moment, Ḥur confronted them and said to them: ‘You fools, do you not recall what miracles the Holy One blessed be He performed on your behalf?’ Immediately, they arose against him and killed him. They surrounded Aharon, as it is stated: “The people assembled around Aharon.” They said to him: ‘Just as we did to that one, so we will do to you.’ When Aharon saw this, he was afraid, as it is stated: “Aharon saw and he built an altar [mizbe’acḥ] before it [lefanav]” (Shemot 32:5). What is mizbe’aḥ? The one who was slaughtered before him [min hazavuacḥ shelefanav].”

From a simple reading of the Midrash and the verses, it appears that God views Aharon’s actions with great severity.  The following verses illustrate this: “And when Moshe saw that the people were broken loose – for Aharon had let them loose for a derision among their enemies” (Shemot 32:25); “Moreover, the Lord was very angry with Aharon to have destroyed him; and I prayed for Aharon also at the same time” (Devarim 9:20).

In contrast to Hur of the tribe of Yehuda, who displays impressive leadership and pays for his deeds with his life, Aharon of the tribe of Levi fails in his leadership during the incident of the golden calf. He fails to withstand the pressure exerted by the people and is therefore held accountable for the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Nevertheless, the work of the Mishkan is assigned to the tribe of Levi and to Aharon. The tribe of Levi, as already mentioned, did not sin in the matter of the golden calf, and Aharon himself only assisted in the making of the calf, but was not involved in idolatrous worship. The work of Aharon and the tribe of Levi in the Mishkan serves to atone for Aharon’s assistance in the creation of the calf. The creation of the Mishkan, on the other hand, was given to the descendant of Hur – Betzalel the son of Uri, son of Hur – following Hur’s steadfastness in upholding his principles in the making of the calf.

The builders of the Mishkan, Betzalel son of Uri, son of Hur, and Oholiav son of Achisamach, are mentioned by name.  Although Betzalel is traced back to his grandfather Hur, this is not the case with Oholiav, whose father’s name is mentioned, but no more. The reason being to recall Hur, who sacrificed his life in an attempt to deter the Israelites from worshipping the calf.  Consequently, his grandson Hur was privileged with the erection of the Mishkan. In all matters concerning the construction of the Mishkan, it is not the tribe of Levi that took charge.  Rather, Betzalel from the tribe of Yehuda, descendent of Hur, was found most suitable for this task.

Moshe asks for donations for the Mishkan from the “the generous of heart”. The people respond enthusiastically, but Moshe is not interested in material donations alone. He also asks for every skilled woman to spin yarns and skins for the Mishkan. “Wise of heart” is a beautiful Biblical term to describe those blessed with artistic talent. The portion of Vayakhel emphasizes artistic skill – “the wisdom of the heart” – before the donations of silver, gold, and precious stones. Here emerges a spiritual worldview where “wisdom of heart” is placed above “generosity of heart”. The great artisans entrusted with the construction of the Mishkan are mentioned by name, while the contributors of silver and gold are only mentioned by status (the heads of tribes [“nesi’im“], for example). The moment Betzalel and Oholiav take upon themselves the task of designing and constructing the Mishkan, a description detailing the splendor and creativity of the Mishkan ensues.

The Mishkan is described as combining simplicity with glamor in an ingenuine fashion. Supporting frames, skins, precious stones, wood, and gold – all intertwined in the design with great artistry. The sculpted gold is used for adornment; the wooden beams give support; the skin serves as cover and adds softness. Especially detailed is the description of the Menorah with its branches, knobs, flowers, and almond blossoms. The text attempts to reflect to us the glory and magnificence of the Mishkan, and it does so by rendering detailed descriptions and using precise language. 

Oholiav seems to be a “man of wise heart”.  At the beginning of the portion of Pekudei, it is written: “And Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur… made all that the Lord commanded Moshe. And with him was Oholiav, son of Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan, a craftsman, a designer, and an embroiderer in blue and in purple and in scarlet, and in fine linen…” (Shemot, 38:22-23). Using multiple words, the verse describes the special talent of Oholiav, for which he was chosen for the role. A craftsman, a designer, an embroiderer, or, to use the Torah’s expression for such a one – “a man of wise heart”. Betzalel, on the other hand, lacks all of the said traits, and what is noted of him is that he did the work of the Lord. What is the reason for his selection then? Does it appear in the verses?  A possible explanation might be that the reference to Hur constitutes the reason for the appointment of Betzalel. In other places as well, the Torah says of Betzalel “… I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” (Shemot 31:2-3). It seems that God first chooses Betzalel, and only then invests him with the qualities required for the task. Oholiav was wise-hearted by nature, while Betzalel was chosen because of his lineage and the deeds of his grandfather, and he receives his “wisdom of heart” afterwards.

We learn from here that there is importance both to the individual himself, as well as to his roots – where he comes from and who his predecessors were. Just as Betzalel is referred to as the grandson of Hur, so the Levites continue the tradition of their fathers. In contrast, Oholiav, son of Achisamach, seemingly lacks honorable lineage or distinguished paternal deeds; however, his wisdom of heart compensates for this. While Betzalel needs God’s blessing to become wise-hearted, Oholiav brings with him his inherent wisdom of heart. The combination of one person’s lineage and the other’s innate talents, gives us the most precise formula for building God’s House.

May we merit to build the third Temple with both wisdom and generosity of heart.


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