It is important to think about the reasons why we do the things we do and the ends to which our actions aim. Especially when our actions have a direct impact on other people. The narratives of the Golden Calf and the construction of the Mishkan offer different ways of approaching the topic of purpose-driven action and highlight the importance of being mindful of why we do certain actions over others.
In Exodus 25:2 we learn that Hashem spoke to Moses and requested donations of materials that would be used to construct the Mishkan. But they weren’t just any donations. They were donations given willingly, donations given after someone’s heart had urged or moved them to give. The donations, or offerings or contributions, weren’t simply taken nor were they given for the sake of giving. The giving was a deliberate action driven by the desire of one’s heart. We know this because it is explicitly stated in the text.
In Exodus 32:2 we learn that Aaron spoke to the people and made a demand that they take off their golden jewelry, and obtain their entire family’s golden jewelry, and bring it to him. For Aaron would use the materials to build the golden calf. Unlike the willing, heartfelt donations of materials for the construction of the Mishkan, the collection of materials for the construction of the golden calf was by force. Acting out of fear, confusion, anxiety, and loneliness the people gave Aaron their gold. The materials were not given with intent to create a space in which G-d could abide in their midst. They were given in a state of stress and due to uncertainty and frustration. Further, according to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 45:4, “The women heard [the demand], but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands; but they said to them: Ye desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power in it to deliver.”
The distinction between willingly giving and forcefully taken is highlighted by name. Robert Alter wrote that “the Hebrew Terumah is a noun derived from a verb that means “to elevate,” and, among several biblical terms for gift.” On the other hand Ki Tisa, translated as “when you take,” points to the act of taking. Not just the taking of the census, but the taking of materials as opposed them being willingly given to you. The concepts of giving and taking are explored in Exodus to call attention to the importance of grounding our actions in a purpose beyond just alleviating anxiety or performing empty gestures. Especially when the anxiety is fueled by uncertainty as was the case when the people were concerned about Moses being “late.” They did not know what happened to him and felt abandoned and instead of investigating further they followed the demands of Aaron in an attempt to ease their fear and loneliness.
In Terumah we learn the extensive instructions for the construction of the Mishkan. We learn exactly what to do with the specific materials that were willingly given by the people. The Mishkan is an important, holy space deserving of care with respect to the both its actual construction and its description in the text. Terumah carefully illustrates the divine purpose and power of the people’s offerings. In Ki Tisa we learn, in great detail, about the many things that Hashem says to Moses about community management and governance. We learn about what Moses is doing and where he is. Facts that the people are not aware of. Facts that, if they were known, might have prevented the construction of the golden calf altogether.
In light of this, one could argue that the literary structure of Terumah and Ki Tisa are for our benefit as readers. Specifically, we are invited to reflect on the sources of sin and the different things that impact our behavior. Especially when it comes to giving and taking in, sometimes only allegedly, the name of G-d. Are we deliberately choosing to do something for the sake of doing something good or holy or with intent to build community with a willing heart? Or are we doing something out of fear or loneliness in the name of superficial aims? What is truly guiding our choices? Are there moments when we should investigate further before coming to a conclusion that might lead to us to act in ways we will regret? When we draw the line between mitzvah and sin, how can we actively work to make sure we can tell the difference during moments of fear and loneliness? These questions, and more, underlie Ki Tisa and highlight the importance of purpose-driven actions that we make after taking the full breadth and depth of our situation into account.