Two Aspects of the Mishkan
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonasan: The name Betzalel indicates his wisdom, for when God told Moses to tell Betzalel to make a Mishkan (tabernacle), an Ark, and the other vessels, Moses reversed the order and said to him, "Make and Ark and the vessels and the Mishkan."
Betzalel then said to him, "Moses, the way of the world is to build a house and then bring into it the vessels, but you told me to first make the vessels and then the Mishkan. Where will I put the vessels that I make? Perhaps God told you to make the Mishkan first and then the Ark and vessels."
Moses responded, "You are called Betzalel - (literally) in the shadow of God, for you knew precisely how to interpret God's words as if you were there, in his shadow." (Talmud - Brachot 55a)
To understand this difficult piece of Talmud requires an appreciation of the Mishkan and its vessels. That in turn depends on understanding the relationship of our bodies to our souls.
We live in a physical world, and our soul is confined in a physical body. For that reason, says Sefer Hachinuch, that which we experience physically makes a stronger impression on us and, in turn, motivates our hearts and souls. Thus, for instance, the eating and drinking on Yom Tov is designed to bring out the spiritual joy of our souls. The performance of actions associated with happiness, and not the mental contemplation of happiness, engenders that emotional state.
The proper external actions are, according to Sefer Hachinuch, the means by which one reaches the proper inner intention. For that reason, one must occupy himself in the study of Torah - even not for its own sake, for learning will eventually bring him to Torah for its own sake.
The majestic and awe-inspiring Mishkan similarly was a physical environment which exercised the most profound effect on all who beheld it. The physical impression it created was transmuted into a powerful inner feeling.
Physical actions have another purpose beyond arousing the proper inner attachment to God. Our task in this world is to place our spiritual beings in control of our physical beings. When we act in conformity with our deepest spiritual perceptions, we are actualizing our inner potential. Nachmanides explains (Genesis 22:1) that the essence of the tests to which God subjects tzaddikim is that it allows them to realize their spiritual potential in action. Actions performed with the proper intention infuse all realms of the world with spiritual power.
The Sages derive from the command to gild the Holy Ark from both the inside and outside with gold, that a Torah scholar must be the same inside and outside (tocho ke'baro), seemingly implying that his inner state must be brought into conformity with his external state.
If we examine the commandment of gilding the Ark, we notice something interesting. There is first a general command to gild the Ark: "You shall gild it with pure gold" (Exodus 25:11). Then the Torah specifies, "from within and without you shall gild it." The first general command relates to the outside of the Ark, the physical which engenders the inner emotions. Then after mentioning the internal covering, the Torah again mentions the covering of the outside. This symbolizes the external expression that must be given to the perfected inner intention, the realization of the inner potential.
This same dynamic relation between external action and inner intent is symbolized by the Mishkan itself. Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan was not needed for God's presence to devolve upon the Jewish people (see Sforno to Exodus 20:21): "...in all places where I record my name I will come unto you, and I will bless you" (Exodus 20:21). With the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the people showed that they needed a physical entity upon which to focus their attention in order to experience God's presence. The Mishkan served this need, and hence only there could God's Presence be felt in its full intensity.
The commentary Meshech Chochma notes that in Parshas Ki Tisa the discussion of Shabbos follows the discussion of the Mishkan. In Parshas Vayakhel, the order is reversed. Shabbos strengthens our belief in God as the Creator of the Universe. As originally conceived prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan was meant to give external expression to that belief in God. But it was not needed to engender that belief, since God's presence already dwelt on each Jew wherever he was. Since the Mishkan was only to enhance our belief in the same way that Shabbos does, there would at that time have been no conflict between the activities of the Mishkan and Shabbos. Hence, in Parshas Ki Tisa, prior to the sin, the Mishkan precedes Shabbos.
After the sin of the Golden Calf however, the Mishkan was needed for God's presence to rest on the Jewish People. Construction of the Mishkan was no longer an expression of Divine service, but a precondition for that service. As such, the activities of the Mishkan and attendant construction work could no longer be permitted on Shabbos. This is hinted to in the fact that in Parshas Vayakhel, after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the discussion of Shabbos precedes that of the Mishkan, from which we learn that the activities of the Mishkan are prohibited on Shabbos.
We can now answer a famous question: If the Mishkan was an atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf, why does the command to build the Mishkan in Parshas Trumah precede the account of the sin of the Golden Calf in Parshas Ki Tisa? The answer is that the Mishkan served two purposes. The first - the actualization of the spiritual strivings of the Jewish people - preceded the sin of the Golden Calf. Only the second purpose - the creation of a dwelling place for the Divine presence - followed the sin of the Golden Calf.
Moses was first told of the Mishkan before the sin of the Golden Calf. At that time, the structure of the Mishkan itself was of secondary importance, and the vessels through which man would actualize his feelings for God were the principal aspect of the Mishkan. Therefore, Moses mentioned the vessels first. The Jews were then far above the natural order of the world in which the house precedes the vessels. They needed no majestic structure to house the holiness of God's Presence.
Betzalel, however, received the command to build the Mishkan after the sin of the Golden Calf. He realized that God's intention now was to create an environment to inspire inner spiritual feelings which would be actualized through the vessels. Betzalel understood what Moses did not - that God's original command was specific in its order because God knew that the Jewish people would sin and require the Mishkan in order to experience His Presence.
The word "Mishkan" is repeated at the beginning of Parshas Pekudei: "These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of witness." The original purpose of the Mishkan (with the definite article) was to enable the Jewish people to express and actualize their inner emotions and beliefs. After the Sin, the Mishkan became the "Mishkan of witness," the place where God's Presence would be felt.
There is an important message here for us. We must not feel hypocritical if we do the mitzvot without the fullest intentions that we know should accompany these activities. As long as we aspire to attain that intention, our actions will bring us to that goal. Also we must remember that even at the height of spiritual inspiration, we must not minimize the importance of the meticulous observance of the physical Mitzvot, for they are the true culmination of those spiritual feelings. Without them, the potential is unrealized.