The Power of Gold

Rabbi Richard Borah

The parsha of Pekudai states the amount of gold required for the sanctuary:


24. All the gold that had been used for the work in all the work of the Holy the gold of the waving was twenty nine talents, seven hundred and thirty shekels, according to the holy shekel.

The other two metals utilized from the sanctuary are silver (kesef) and copper (nechoshet).

The majority of the gold was utilized for the following items of the sanctuary:

1. The holy ark – wood coated inside and outside with gold.

2. The ark cover – eaten from a single piece of gold.

3. The spice altar – wood coated on outside with gold.

4. The menorah – beaten from a single piece of gold.

5. The table for the showbread – wood coated on outside with gold.

6. Parts of the Kohane Gadole’s clothing.

7. Additional small utensils of the sanctuary.

It is quite clear that gold is the metal used for those objects that are most holy. The center of the sanctuary and the area most restricted for use or entry in the “Holy of Holies” which contained the holy ark and the ark cover, both of which are made of gold. The “Holy” which was the area immediately outside of the “Holy of Holies” contained the golden spice altar, the table and the menorah, all were gold. No silver or copper were used here. Outside of the Holy is the sanctuary courtyard was the washing basin and the altar on which the sacrifices were offered. These were both made of copper (some translate as bronze, which is a copper/tin alloy). Silver was primarily utilized for the sockets of the pillars that made up the structure of the sanctuary. But it is gold that is used for objects endowed with the highest level of holiness.

Why is gold the metal of choice for this purpose? Although very beautiful and enduring, gold has many negative connotations, the most prominent one being its use for the golden calf which the Jewish people constructed when they surmised that Moshe died due to his delay in descending from Mount Sinai. This sin is often regarded as the most damaging one in our history and one that reflects a fundamentally evil with which the Jewish people continue to struggle. Also, gold was associated with the Pharaohs and Egypt, from whose idolatrous and lascivious culture the Jews were rescued in their redemption from Egypt. One could certainly ask whether there are any positive associations with gold that make it the material of choice from turning ones thoughts to God in the sanctuary?

There is a very intriguing statement in the Shemos Raba 51:6:

Aaron said to them: “Break off the gold rings…” (Shemot 32:2). And the people broke off their golden rings and showered them upon him until he was compelled to exclaim: “Enough!” This was the point of Moses’ rebuke “And Laban, and Hazerot, and Dizahab” (Devarim 1:2)- (Dizahab is a hint as it can be read to mean “enough gold”) This can be compared to a young man who came to a city and found the people collecting money for charity, and when they asked him also to subscribe, he went on giving until they had to tell him that he had already given enough. Further on his travels, he came to a place where they were collecting for a theater, and when asked to contribute toward it, he was also so generous that he had to be told, “Enough!”. Israel, likewise, contributed so much toward the Golden Calf that they had to be told, “Enough!” And they contributed so much gold to Mishkan that they had to be told, “Enough!” as it is said, “For their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” (37:7). The Holy One Blessed be He then said: “Let the gold of the Mishkan atone for the gold they brought toward making of the Golden Calf”.

Avivah Zornberg in her book “The Particulars of Rapture-Reflections of Exodus” notes a subtle point in that the midrash’s parallel example for the gold of the calf and the mishkan until they are told “enough!” is that of a man who gives gold to charity and then, afterwards gives gold to the theater, until he is told in both cases, “enough!” Ms. Zornberg explains that in the case of the man with the gold given to the charity and the theater the order is reversed to dispel the idea that there was some positive development in the case of the Jews “overgiving” for the mishkan after the previous “overgiving” to the calf. In the case of the giver in the midrash, he gives first to charity and afterwards to the theater, reversing the order of the Jewish people making clear that no repentance or development took place between the two donations (the golden calf and then the mishkan) in the case of the Jewish people either. She explains that it is only by God's mercy that that the previous donations to make the calf are atoned through the giving to the miskhan and not due to an actual transformation of the person's perspective. The flaw remains, but God's accepts this giving to the mishkan as an atonement, nonetheless. Ms. Zornberg states:

The sequence is confused, so that a simple optimism about right objects replacing wrong objects becomes impossible. The story of the young man, with his compulsive, morally opaque generosity, seeps into the midrashic narrative of the people. A linear progression from evil to good forms of energy is undermined in the parable structure, where the time sequence cannot objectively indicate redemption or atonement. It is only God’s words that retroactively restructure the events of the past expressing a “wish” that this should cover that. God’s words are in the jussive form: “Let it be…” Without His words, the facts carry no unequivocal meaning. Essentially, God suggests a possible world, imposing order on the promiscuous generosity of His undiscriminating people. (p. 468).

I would like to suggest another idea indicated by the midrash. Why did the gold of the mishkan atone for the gold of the calf? Perhaps this midrash helps to clarify that the degradation of the Jewish people’s perspective which occurred with the golden calf to require the worship of God in a manner that partook of place and the creation of their own hands, need to be rectified in some manner. This need could not be reversed to the pre-calf level. But now the question was how to carry out this worship in a manner that was not so far from the truth that it remained idolatrous.

The inclusion of place and man-made objects had to be optimally included in the act of worshipping God. Once the people were at a level that required place and objects of their own making to draw their attention to God, what was the best manner in which such a place and such objects could be made? This manner was the place and the structure and materials of the mishkan. This was why it was , so to speak, an “atonement” or, more precisely, an optimal sublimation of the desire for physicality in worship.

The worship was now directed to a place; this place being the mishkan which was associated with the propitious acts which took place there, such as the offering of Yitzchak by Avraham in absolute servitude to God. This mishkan had the holy ark at its core. Within the ark was the “aseret hadibros” (the tablets of the 10 commandments or, more accurately, the 10 statements.) So at the heart of the mishkan was not an image, but a set on laws based on concepts which were abstract in nature and not at all physical. In this way the gold of the mishkan redeemed the gold of the calf. The gold that remained physical in the golden calf, here, within the ark at its center, housed the “aseret hadibros” (“ten commandments”) and the physical gold was made to serve that which was of true value-the connection to non-physical God through wisdom.

Many great commentators have explained the use of gold in the mishkan based on its unique qualities. For example, gold represents purity and eternity in that it does not tarnish or change by mixing with other elements like silver and copper do. However, I would suggest that the gold is also simply alluring and attractive because of its beauty and association with wealth and grandeur. It was the metal of the powerful, the wealthy, the royal. As such, it was the best material to attract one’s attention to that which was truly most precious. Now the physical gold of the miskhan attracted the human mind to the true value - the worship of God and the inculcation of the ideas of the Torah represented by the tablets within the holy ark. The redeeming of the gold of the calf takes place because gold which previously drew man’s mind away from the truth (in the case of the golden calf) was now utilized to bring man back to focusing on that which is of true value-the worship of the One True Being who is the source of all value through the ideas within the Torah (represented by the aseres hadibros—the "ten commandments" brought down my Moshe from Sinai).

Regarding the solid gold ark cover with the two cherub figures, the Torah states:

Betzalel made the ark of shittim wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold within and without, and made a rim of gold to it round about ... He made the covering of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. He made two keruvim of gold, hammered out of one piece, at the two ends of the covering: one keruv at one end and the other keruv at the other end; he made the keruvim of one piece with the covering, at its two ends. The keruvim had their wings spread out above, shielding the covering with their wings. They faced each other; the faces of the keruvim were turned toward the covering." (Exodus 37:1,2,6-9)

The two cherubs (keruvim) that are atop the ark cover and resemble two winged children facing each other and looking downward. Regarding these, the Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) states:

Prior to stating that [God] will meet with you and impart to you from above the covering ... the Torah states what is to be placed inside the ark, to teach us that the holiness of the ark stems from the stone tablets within it and not from its covering or from the keruvim.

Luzzato makes clear his opinion that the holiness of the ark came from what was within it: the aseres hadibros representing the Torah and its wisdom.