The sin of the golden calf is one of those episodes in the Torah that are just plain difficult to relate to. After all that the Bnei Yisrael witnessed in Egypt and in the desert, it’s so hard to understand how they would even imagine engaging in idol worship. As long as we do understand the gravity of the sin and are familiar with the basic story line of what occurred afterwards, however, there is an extremely relevant and fundamental lesson to appreciate.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808 – 1888), in his commentary on the Torah, observes that the sin and the Jewish people’s subsequent regaining of the Almighty’s favor all preceded the construction of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. He writes: “The nation had committed the most serious crime in its history thus far, and yet it had been able to regain the greatest demonstration of Divine favor without having a temple and without making any offerings.” According to Rabbi Hirsch, the lesson to learn from the entire episode is that there is nothing that can stop a person from successful personal growth. It didn’t matter that there was not yet a Mishkan, no atoning offerings to bring, and no Yom Kippur Temple service. The nation was able to repent and move on, and they therefore regained the Almighty’s favor.
A similar idea emerges from a cryptic Talmudic passage. Normally, the term Mishkan refers to the temporary tent-like portable sanctuary, while Mikdash refers to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud demonstrates that the Torah and Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) sometimes use these terms interchangeably. The message of this peculiarity is beautifully and humorously illustrated in the book Sing, You Righteous:
“Let us imagine two men standing in Moses’ time, viewing the Mishkan. One says: “What a privilege we posses in the Mishkan!” The second replies: “Yes, but it is naught compared to what our descendants will have in the days of the Mikdash. What can one accomplish in this wilderness, where life is unsettled and abnormal? The Mishkan is not permanent, and it is a small object which is carried from place to place; and it is not sufficiently impressive. But in the great days to come, when our children shall lead a normal life in their own land, and they shall erect an imposing edifice to G-d: then they will be able to achieve the purpose for which they were born!” Now, let us imagine two men in the time of Shlomoh [after the Beit Hamikdash had already been built]. One remarks: “what a joy it is to possess such an imposing Sanctuary to G-d!” The other replies: “What is this in comparison to the holy Mishkan erected by Moses and the great men of that noble generation! Whom do we possess now that can compare to those exalted men? If we could even have one look at Moses, our lives would be changed; but now, what do we possess?”
Therefore the Mishkan and the Mikdash have interchangeable names, to teach that one must utilize the opportunity of his days instead of wasting his life in regretting that which was, or will be.
Achievement of true growth has to be accomplished no matter where we happen to be, and no matter who we happen to be with. Extracting one’s self from his or her mistakes, bad habits, or self-destructive paradigms is not dependent on circumstances. The message of the reconciliation following the sin of the golden calf is that we can rise above our situation and make it all happen as long as we sincerely try.