This action-packed portion contains the final instructions for building the Tabernacle. It also relates the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf. Following the sin, Moses pleads with God to maintain His relationship with the Children of Israel as it had been until that point. God commands Moses to carve a new set of tablets and He reiterated highlights of His law to the people. At the end of the portion, Moses finally descends from Mount Sinai, his face aglow with holiness.
The Half-Shekel and Finishing Touches
God then tells Moses about the final pieces of the Tabernacle. First is the laver, a copper basin for ritual washing. God instructs the priests to wash their hands and feet in it before performing any services.
Next He tells Moses to prepare the oil for anointing. With it, Moses is to anoint the vessels of the Tabernacle along with the Tabernacle itself and Aaron and his sons in the service of God. No other person is permitted to prepare a similar composition for personal use, nor may anyone use the oil of the Tabernacle for any other purpose.
Finally, God gives Moses the precise recipe for the incense to be burned in the Tabernacle, likewise forbidding any profane use of the same combination.
The Israel Bible discusses the significance of the half-shekel contribution. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, it signifies that merely existing within society is not enough for a person to “count”. To really be considered part of the community, a person must contribute of himself.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the instructions for the Tabernacle construction are interrupted with the laws of census-taking? What could be the significance of the juxtaposition of these passages?
Commissioned to Construct the Tabernacle
God appoints Bezalel, grandson of Hur (who in turn is the nephew of Aaron and Moses and whom Moses appointed to take his place alongside Aaron when he went up Mount Sinai) to oversee the actual Tabernacle construction, in accordance with everything God laid out for Moses. He partners Bezalel with Oholiab of the tribe of Dan.
Juxtaposed with this appointment, God commands the people to refrain from working on the Sabbath day. This is to serve as witness to the fact that God created the world over six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. Anyone who transgresses the Sabbath is liable for the death penalty. In fact, as the Israel Bible points out, this verse is repeated every Sabbath by Jews worldwide as they sanctify the Sabbath day.
Finally, God gives Moses the two tablets of stone upon which He has written with His own hand.
Points to Ponder
For the Sages, the juxtaposition of the Sabbath with the construction of the Tabernacle helped them determine much of the law pertaining to the Sabbath. What do you think is the connection between the Tabernacle and the Sabbath?
The Sin of the Golden Calf
After an extended break, the narrative returns to the people, awaiting Moses at the base of the mountain. They notice that Moses is late in returning, and they turn to his brother Aaron, asking him to build a new god to replace the missing Moses. Aaron asks the people to gather gold jewelry from their wives and children. He uses the gold to form a Golden Calf, telling the Children of Israel, “This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”
Meanwhile, God accuses the people of being “stiff-necked”, and threatens to wipe them out, starting over with Moses. Not even knowing exactly what the Israelites have done wrong to earn God’s wrath, Moses defends the people, telling God that if He were to do such a thing, the Egyptians would think He was unable to bring the people to safety. God concedes to Moses’s argument and allows him to take the stone tablets to the people.
When Moses arrives in the camp and sees what God saw, he is incensed. He throws down the tablets, smashing them at the base of the mountain. He destroys the Golden Calf, grinds it to a powder and dissolves it in water, which he forces the people to drink. He confronts his brother for leading the people astray, and calls upon the Levites, his own tribe who did not participate in the worship of the calf, to enact God’s justice among the people.
Now fully appreciating the gravity of their actions, Moses returns to the mountain to again ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people. God accepts.
In his defense of the people, Moses calls upon God to remember His pledge to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Israel Bible points out that Moses was concerned should God wipe out the people and start over with him, as He suggested, the promise to the forefathers to give their descendents the Holy Land might no longer be binding. He therefore pleads with God to be merciful and spare the people.
Points to Ponder
Aaron’s actions seem indefensible, yet he continues to serve as High Priest even after the incident of the Golden Calf (indeed, he doesn’t even start to serve until after). Therefore, perhaps his deeds are mitigated somehow. Why do you think Aaron did what he did? Why do you think he is permitted to serve as High Priest after this?
Moses Fights for the People
Although God forgives the nation, He tells Moses from now on, they will be led by an angel, lest God consume the people on the way. The people are devastated by the news, and remove their ornaments in mourning. Moses appeals to God to change His mind and continue to be a presence among the nation. God agrees.
Encouraged by his strengthened relationship with God, Moses now asks Him to reveal His glory. God chides him that nobody can see His face and live; nevertheless, He agrees to show Moses His back.
As an aside, this section also describes how Moses and God would communicate during the nation’s travels. Moses would set up the Tent of Meeting at a distance from the camp. When he would go there, all the nation would watch him approach it. When he arrived, the pillar of cloud would appear before the door of the tent and God would converse with Moses as two friends might. The people would bow in worship.
When God commands Moses to continue journeying at the start of this section, He uses the verb “go up”. From here, the Israel Bible points out, the Talmud learns that the Promised Land is considered the highest point on Earth.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Moses wanted to see God? What do you think it means that God showed him His back?
The Renewed Covenant
God tells Moses to carve two more tablets of stone like the ones he broke and return to the summit of Mount Sinai. Once there, God reveals to him His thirteen attributes of mercy. Appealing to that mercy, Moses again asks God to promise that He will remain amidst the people. God says he is making a covenant with the people that He will do wonders on their behalf, and drive out their enemies from the Promised Land, on condition that the people wipe out the idolatry from the land. He warns them, too, not to make any treaties with them or intermingle with them, lest they serve as a snare to tempt the Children of Israel away from God.
God then reiterates the command to observe the Pilgrimage holidays, starting with Passover; the Sabbath; and the consecration of the firstborn animals. He commands the nation not to bring sacrifices with leavened bread nor to leave any of the Passover sacrifice until morning. He prohibits cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.
For forty days and nights, Moses remains at the top of the mountain, neither eating nor drinking. When he descends with the new tablets, his face is aglow with the holiness of the experience. The people are blinded by it, and Moses must veil his face at all times unless in the presence of God.
It should be noted, as the Israel Bible points out, the Hebrew phrase which describes Moses’s radiant face is karan-ohr. The same word for ray of light (keren) also means “horn” in Hebrew. It is this dual meaning which led to Michelangelo’s famous, but mistaken, depiction of Moses with horns.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Moses’s face glowed only after his second stay on Mount Sinai?