There is a classic debate about the order of the Torah with respect to the passages about the mishkan (tabernacle) and the golden calf. In one view, it was written in order, with God’s intention for the mishkan derailed by the people’s sin, but ultimately restored as they achieve forgiveness. In the other view, the text is out of order, and the mishkan came only in response to the people’s sin. When we integrate the insights of both sides of this debate, we land on a third approach that emphasizes the power of taking initiative in relationships, even though we aren’t certain what to expect.

The chief representative for maintaining the text’s chronological order is Ramban. He describes how Moshe received the instructions for the mishkan (Exodus 25) before the golden calf (Exodus 32), and waited to tell the people until he was certain that God had forgiven Israel (Exodus 34). He sees a complete reconciliation, noting the connection between God’s initial statement, “They shall make me a sanctuary so I will dwell in their midst” (25:8) to God’s renewed covenant after the sin as Moshe begs, “May God go among us!” (34:9).1 When Moshe gathers the people to build the mishkan, he speaks with relief, heralding a return to the “youthful love” between God and the people before things went wrong.2

On the other side, a midrashic tradition3 cuts up and reorders the biblical text, asserting that the instructions to build the mishkan recorded in chapter 25 were actually only given after the people were forgiven for the golden calf.  Rashi sides with this invasive reorganization, but doesn’t explain why.4 R. Eliyahu Mizrahi, in his commentary on Rashi, explains the narrative incoherence if the instructions for the mishkan had been given before the sin:5

מזרחי (רא"ם) שמות פרק לא

…איך ידע משה אם נתרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל על דבר המשכן עד שצוה אותם על נדבת המשכן, שמא לא נתרצה רק על נתינת הלוחות לישראל… אבל לעשות גם המשכן לשכון בתוכם, שהיא חבה יתרה, לא…


Sefer Mizrahi Shemot 31

…How would Moshe have known that the Holy Blessed One had been reconciled with Israel about the matter of the mishkan to the point of instructing them about donating to the mishkan? Perhaps [God] had only reconciled to the point of giving tablets to Israel…


Contra Ramban, a straightforward reading of the Torah would not assume that God’s forgiveness fully restored the relationship to the pre-sin state. If the instructions for the mishkan were given before the sin, Moshe could not have been assured that God wanted to dwell with the people.6 The only way, according to Mizrahi, that Rashi can conceive of Moshe instructing the people to build the mishkan, is if God explicitly expressed this desire after the sin.

When we take both of these readings seriously, we land on a third reading less focused on the nature of divine forgiveness and more focused on human agency. We can follow the straightforward order of the text, alongside Mizrahi’s logic behind reorganization. After the extended process of asking God’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf, Moshe is actually not sure whether God still wants the mishkan. When we look carefully into the text of the Torah, we see that God never explicitly speaks of “dwelling in the midst of the people” throughout their negotiation. We also realize that God doesn’t speak to Moshe in the entirety of Parashat VaYakhel. God doesn’t tell Moshe to build the mishkan now—Moshe just jumps in and sets this massive project into gear.7

If we don’t follow the path of reordering, we can now understand Parashat VaYakhel in a totally new way. The word va-yakhel (and he gathered) signifies Moshe taking a leap, deciding that the people will go ahead and build the mishkan, and afterwards see if God decides to dwell in it. He hopes this gathering will atone for the people’s “gathering upon Aharon” to build the golden calf (ויקהל העם על אהרן).8 VaYakhel doesn’t come from relief, as Ramban would have it, but from uncertainty, even nervousness, alongside a steadfast insistence that this is the direction the relationship must go.9 Unlike the reordered version of Sefer Shemot, where building the mishkan reflects strict obedience to God’s immediate command, when we read the chapters in order, VaYakhel represents Moshe’s daring initiative. The antidote to the golden calf is not strict obedience to an explicit divine instruction. The gathering of VaYakhel also requires intuition in the face of the unknown, but this time driven by Moshe’s vision, rather than by Aharon being swept up in the crowd’s chaos.

VaYakhel expresses human initiative, hopefulness, and a dose of hutzpah. Suddenly the refrain of the people building each part of the mishkan “just as God commanded Moshe” (throughout chapter 39) is more of twisting God’s arm, or an expression of desperate hope, rather than signifying blind obedience. Even though God hasn’t explicitly commanded to build the mishkan after the golden calf, they have decided to go ahead and build anyway.

After all of the effort amassing and building, Moshe finally hears affirmation and acceptance when God speaks to him (Exodus 40:1), telling him to erect this mishkan they have worked so hard to create.In other readings, that verse seems redundant—didn’t we know that God wanted them to build the mishkan?—but becomes the much anticipated climax of a suspenseful drama in our reading. Their work was not in vain; Moshe’s gamble paid off.  God recognizes the people’s desire and effort, and in response decides to dwell among them again.

This reading of Parashat VaYakhel is more like our own mode of existence, aware of the ways we have failed and not entirely sure of the prospects for repair.  We don’t live in Ramban’s picture where we have complete confidence of God’s return, without any residual effect from our failures. And we don’t live in Rashi’s picture, where God explicitly speaks up and tells us of a desire for “excessive intimacy” (in Mizrahi’s words) after we have messed up. Instead, we live out a VaYakhel that is about taking initiative to create a space where God might inhabit our lives and our world, without any confidence God will.

The “gathering” that results in manifest blessing rather than destruction stems from vision and resolve, doing our best to interpret the residue of God’s words, and bringing together a community in its full array of people and skills to live out that vision. Maybe after investing so much effort, we too will merit divine blessing. Meanwhile, this parashah teaches us not to expect God’s voice to emerge anytime soon, and just get to work.

1 Ramban on Shemot 35:1: ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל - יכלול "כל עדת בני ישראל" האנשים והנשים, כי כלם התנדבו במלאכת המשכן. והנה משה אחר שצוה לאהרן והנשיאים וכל בני ישראל האנשים כל אשר דבר ה' אתו בהר סיני אחרי שבור הלוחות, ונתן על פניו המסוה, חזר וצוה והקהילו אליו כל העדה אנשים ונשים. ויתכן שהיה זה ביום מחרת רדתו. ואמר לכולם ענין המשכן אשר נצטוה בו מתחלה קודם שבור הלוחות, כי כיון שנתרצה להם הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן לו הלוחות שניות וכרת עמו ברית חדשה שילך השם בקרבם, הנה חזרו לקדמותם ולאהבת כלולותם, ובידוע שתהיה שכינתו בתוכם כענין שצוהו תחלה, כמו שאמר (לעיל כה ח) ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, ולכן צוה אותם משה עתה בכל מה שנצטוה מתחלה

2 While this view is spelled out most explicitly by Ramban, it is clear that Ibn Ezra held by this view as well. Just before the story of the golden calf he notes that God had spoken about the matters of the mishkan with Moshe (Abridged Commentary to Shemot 31:18: וטעם ככלותו לדבר אתו - דבר המשכן והשבת), while at the beginning of Parashat VaYakhel he notes that only now did Moshe share all of these instructions, at the same time he came with the second set of Tablets (Abridged Commentary to Shemot 35:1: ויקהל משה - עתה דבר לישראל מעשה המשכן אחר שירד עם הלוחות השניות)

3 See, e.g., Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw) Terumah 8.

4 Rashi’s comment to Shemot 31:18: ויתן אל משה וגו' - אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. מעשה העגל קודם לצווי מלאכת המשכן ימים רבים היה, שהרי בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות, וביום הכפורים נתרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל, ולמחרת התחילו בנדבת המשכן והוקם באחד בניסן:

5 The Maharal of Prague, in his Gur Aryeh (another commentary on Rashi), raises this question and goes on to explain Rashi’s point differently, that it’s about timeline. God explicitly says it should be erected on the first of Nisan, and we see that it only took from Yom Kippur until the first of Nisan to build it, so God had no need to give Moshe the instructions before the first of Nisan. Gur Aryeh to Shemot 31:18: שהרי בי"ז עלה וכו'. קשה, דמה ראיה מביא מזה שאין מוקדם ומואחר בתורה, שהרי עדיין יש לומר דהיה ציווי מלאכת המשכן קודם מעשה עגל, אלא שמשה אמר לישראל הציווי על מלאכת המשכן אחר יום הכפורים כאשר נתרצה להם על מעשה העגל (קושית הרא"ם)...

6 Perhaps by speaking with Moshe outside the camp, away from the people as we see in Exodus 33:7.

7 This is what is probably most motivating Rashi. How could Moshe have the audacity to set all of this in motion after the rupture of the golden calf, without God explicitly telling him to do so? It must be that God’s extensive instructions about the mishkan came right here, and that is why Moshe gathered the people to start building.

8 One midrashic tradition hints to Moshe’s initiative in VaYakhel as a pathway to achieve reconciliation between Israel and God. Midrash Aggadah (Buber) Shemot 35:1:

ויקהל משה. זה שאמר הכתוב מי כהחכם [ומי] יודע פשר דבר וגו' (קהלת ח' א'), אשריהם הצדיקים שיודעים לעשות פשרה בין ישראל לאביהם שבשמים, לפיכך אמר משה רבינו ע"ה ויקהל, תבוא ועשו לי מקדש (שמות כ"ה ח'), ותכפר על מעשה העגל, שנאמר בו קום עשה לנו אלהים (שם לב א'), ותבוא קהלת משה רבינו, שנאמר ויקהל משה את כל עדת וגו' ותכפר על קהלת אהרן, דכתיב ויקהל העם על אהרן (שם שם), [ותבוא אמירת משה רבינו שנאמר ויאמר אליהם משה, ויכפר על אמירת אהרן], שנאמר ויאמרו אליו קום עשה לנו אלהים (שם שם), תבוא אמירת זה הדבר (פסוק ד'), ותכפר על אמירת כי זה משה האיש (שם לב א'), תבוא אלה הדברים, ותכפר על אמירת אלה אלהיך ישראל (שם שם ד.

Note that another version that draws a similar linguistic connection sees this as God’s gracious gift for atonement rather than Moshe’s initiative. Pesikta Zutrata (Lekah Tov) Shemot 34:34: תבוא קהלת משה רבינו, דכתיב ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל, ויכפר על קהלת אהרן, שנאמר ויקהל העם על אהרן.

9 This reading, that they don’t actually know if God will dwell in it while they build the mishkan, is borne out by the drama of Parashat Shemini, where there is uncertainty about whether God’s presence will dwell with the people, whether they have actually been forgiven for the golden calf. See for example Rashi on Vayikra 9:23.