Parashat Pekudeh: Empowering the Spirit to Subdue the Body
Parashat Pekudeh continues the discussion of the construction of the Mishkan. The introductory verse of this Parasha refers to the Mishkan as "Mishkan Ha’edut" – "the Mishkan of testimony." Rashi explains that the Mishkan, which contained the Shechina (divine presence), testified to the fact that G-d forgave Beneh Yisrael for the grave sin of the golden calf. G-d’s willingness to reside among the people demonstrated that He forgave them.
The Tosher Rebbe presents an in-depth explanation for this concept, how the Mishkan rectified the sin of the golden calf.
The Gemara famously teaches that before G-d gave the Torah to Beneh Yisrael, he first offered it to the other nations. These nations, one by one, declined the offer, because they doubted their ability to adhere by the Torah’s laws. They asked G-d for a sample of the commandments, and determined that as frail, flawed human beings, they were incapable of committing to the Torah’s obligations.
Beneh Yisrael, however, accepted the Torah without any hesitation, proclaiming, "Na’aseh Ve’nishma" ("We will do and we will hear"), committing to the Torah’s laws even before learning what was entailed. The reason, the Tosha Rebbe explains, is because by the time Beneh Yisrael arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they had reached a pristine spiritual level. As the Gemara teaches, "Paseka Zuhmatan" – "their filth was eliminated." As human beings, who are comprised of both a physical and spiritual nature, our bodies often get in the way of the soul. Our quest for spiritual greatness is frequently thwarted and frustrated by our physical drives. But during the seven weeks leading up to Revelation at Sinai, Beneh Yisrael underwent an intensive process of spiritual growth, to the point where their bodies were completely subdued by their souls. They had reached such a high level that their bodies no longer "got in the way," that they were able to fully commit themselves to perform G-d’s will, because their physical drives were fully under the control of their spirit.
Indeed, the Gemara teaches that when Beneh Yisrael proclaimed, "Na’aseh Ve’nishma," G-d congratulated the people for being like the angels in heavens. The angels have no evil inclination; they are completely and wholeheartedly devoted to serving G-d, without any temptations or inner resistance. This is the level Beneh Yisrael reached at Mount Sinai – that the physical component of their beings was under the full control of their spiritual component, such that they resembled the angels, who have no physical element against which they need to struggle.
This pristine level was lost with the sin of the golden calf. This fall is represented by the difference between the two sets of Luhot (stone tablets). The first set, which Moshe shattered, was pure and pristine, created by G-d Himself, representing the people’s level at that point, before the sin, where the body was completely subdued by the spirit, such that they were entirely spiritual beings. The second tablets, by contrast, were hewn by Moshe, a human being, and G-d then engraved the text of the commandments upon them. This represented the usual human condition, the complex, messy combination between body and soul, the tension and struggle between our physical and spiritual elements. Just as the divine writing was inscribed on earthly stone, we, too, are earthly beings imbued with a heavenly soul.
The Mishkan was the site of the offering of sacrifices. The sacrifice of an animal symbolizes the destruction of our animalistic tendencies, of our physical essence, of the part of our beings which resembles soulless animals. The experience of a sacrificial offering is intended to impress upon a person the importance of subduing his physical drives, of empowering his soul to restrain them. The image of an animal being slaughtered and then burned on the altar demonstrates the need to triumph over our physical impulses so we can live lives of spiritual meaning and purpose.
And thus the Mishkan was "Mishkan Ha’edut" – the testimony to the people’s recovery from the sin of the golden calf. Although Beneh Yisrael never again returned to the level they had reached before the golden calf, nevertheless, the Mishkan served to put them back on the path towards that pristine state. We will always need to struggle against our Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination), our "animalistic" drives and tendencies. But the Mishkan teaches us that we can, and must, empower the spirit to subdue the body, and rise above the "animal" within us so we can devote our lives to the service of our Creator.