This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with the instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle. It concludes with the first of many rebellions, the building of the golden calf. Why was the building of one a transgression and the other a holy task? The first and most obvious answer is that the mishkan was commanded by God and the golden calf was not. Yet we read that the chief architect of the tabernacle was a man named Betzalel who “God endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft…” (Exodus 31: 3)
Often when we use the similar phrase “divinely inspired” it suggests that a person is remarkably creative. I wonder, what are the limits of creativity? When does a human creation become idolatry? The people were afraid. They wondered why Moses was taking so long to come down from the mountaintop. They only did what they knew how to do. They built a golden calf. Was it beautiful? Undoubtedly. Was it expertly crafted? Certainly. Still it was an idol. And the people were severely punished. The intention is secondary to the action.
Since the destruction of the Temple the rabbis argued that all construction projects are flawed. Even the best are imperfect. The worst are idols. And so Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that it is better to build not a tabernacle in space but in time. We build a day. Shabbat and its observances is our holy temple. It and it alone, is called a sign for all time between God and the people of Israel. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:17)
In fact this entire Torah portion is about our imperfect attempts to approach the divine. First there is the tabernacle, next the golden calf and finally Moses meets God face to face. Yet even Moses cannot see God. The Torah reports: “And I will take away My hand, and you will see My back; but My face will not be seen. (Exodus 33:23)
The Hatam Sofer, a 19th century Jewish thinker, comments: “One is only able to recognize God’s ways and God’s actions after the fact. Only after time has passed is it possible to link together all the facts, can one understand a little of the way God acts. At the time itself we cannot understand God’s deeds and we stand amazed. Thus, ‘you will see My back’ – after some time has passed you will understand My actions, ‘but My face will not be seen’ – at the time of the events themselves, you will not see Me.”
No matter what we build, no matter what we behold, it is still only a glimmer. It is only when looking back, through the arc of our lives, that we are able to glimpse God’s handiwork.