In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites gathered to build the golden calf. They pulled together their resources and built an idol for worship. This week the Torah recounts the completion of the building of the tabernacle. This too involved the collection of precious resources for the purpose of worship. On the surface, these two gatherings seem almost identical.
How is it that the construction of one kind of center for prayer is considered holy work while another is considered idolatry?
With the construction of the Tabernacle, each individual act is understood to be selfless and voluntary. All gifts were to be from those whose hearts so moved them. Additionally, the Tabernacle was constructed as a dwelling place of the Eternal God in response to God’s commandment:
“Build me a sanctuary so I may dwell among you.”
THUS, the offerings, craftsmanship and efforts that went into the building of the Tabernacle were done with the sacred purpose of bringing the people together in the service of God.
In contrast, the construction of the golden calf was a rebellion. The assembly was an uprising against God, rooted in angst, fear and mistrust. Those who participated in the assembly around the golden calf represented an assembly of “takers” not “givers,” and herein lies a concrete distinction that applies to our lives today.
When our actions become motivated by an inner desire to consume, and take, and fulfill ourselves alone,
When our religious quest is self-serving,
When worship and ritual practices are only acts of taking and never acts of giving,
And when our sense of obligation is defined solely by a search to satisfy and fulfill ourselves,
Such actions could be considered as idolatrous. They lead us astray, and it is easy to lose sight of the sacred obligation to “give”.
In today’s world (as it was for our ancestors), it can be very easy to find comforts in idolatrous assemblies. We often set up idols rooted in folly. We worship wealth, power and prestige. We covet things we do not have. We become possessive for things that have only temporary value.
Judaisms response to such folly is symbolically embodied in the tabernacle. For when our rituals and actions are driven by a sense of obligation to improving the world around us and when the nature of our assemblies are for the service of others and not ourselves, our gatherings attain a sacred nature. This is the purpose of the Tabernacle for our ancestors in the wilderness as well as our sacred gatherings today.