What’s the difference between the making of the egel ha’zahav (golden calf) and the building of the mishkan (the Tabernacle)?
When it comes to the building of the Temple, our Rabbis teach that God is not primarily to be found on the mountaintop, where Avraham encountered God. Nor is God primarily to be found in the field, where Yitzchak encountered God. God is rather to be found in a house, like Yaakov said, “This is the house of God.”
What is the significance of a “house of God”? Why is a house better than a field or a mountaintop? On the one hand, having a house means that God can be connected to more intensely in a particular place. If God is everywhere, then God is equally nowhere. Having a house of God allows many, but certainly not all, of us to connect more intensely.
More importantly, a house is something that we have to build. A house doesn’t just exist in nature. It is created through human endeavor, skill and creativity. We have to invest our energy, our effort, and our neshama into constructing and creating something. And if that work is devoted towards a holy task, then the work itself becomes holy and sanctified. Nothing we value in this world do we get for free. “You shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.” (Ps. 128:2).
We value what we invest in, that which we create, that which we build. Har Sinai itself, once God departed from it, had no remaining sanctity even though it was the site of the greatest theophany ever in human history. In stark contrast, the Temple Mount, where the Beit ha-Mikdash was built, retained its sanctity even after the Temple was destroyed. Why? Because the Temple was something that was built, something we invested our hearts, lives, and passion into. And the sanctity that is created from that work and effort has a staying power. It persists and remains powerful forever.
The focus on the Tabernacle as house also points to the difference between the mishkan and the egel. A house is not an idol. An idol is also some created, something that people throw their energies into. But it is a solid thing, a thing in its own right.
A house, in contrast, is not significant because of its walls. The walls are important because they create a space. It is the space that we value. The space affords nurturing and intimacy, it gives a family a place to live; it is a place for parents to love, children to be raised, and – before COVID – a place for guests to be invited and entertained.
A house is a space, and with a space, true encounter can occur.
An idol, as we have said, is the opposite of space. It is physical. There is nothing that has opened up to allow another to enter. And a physical thing, when used not to make space for God, but to represent God, is not only a false image, it ultimately, with all the work that we put into it, becomes a reflection or projection of ourselves onto the idol, of a making of God in our image.
Where there is openness it is God Godself, and not our projection of God, who can enter. For after all the building that we have done, we stop and pull back. We exhibit tzimzum. We contract ourselves so we don’t fill up the house, but so that others can come in. “And God’s presence filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:35). And once this happens, once we are able to relate to God as God is, and not as we would like God to be, then true encounter occurs.
This is true about our interpersonal relationships as well. Do we invest in those relationships to see ourselves reflected back in others, or do we invest in order to pull back and to see the other for who he or she is? To truly encounter him or her, not just our image of who they might be?
This can be a challenge in the time of COVID. We’re around our family members – stuck in one house – all the time. So much so that the home might be becoming less of a space and more something solid. We are bumping into one another, or just brushing by, but not truly encountering as we once did. It is on us to do the work of finding ways to pull back and create a bayit, a holy house, a house which creates a space so that others may truly enter.