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Before we understand why gold, silver and copper were important in the tabernacle, it’s important to understand why and when the tabernacle was built. As always, there’s more than one answer. In fact, there are three different opinions. The tabernacle was the natural outgrowth of the giving of the Torah. G-d wanted to communicate the law to His people – the Jews. For that purpose, a “communications center” was built, where G-d would speak to Moses, who would then gather the Jews together to report to them what G-d had said. And there also, the Jews would bring their sacrifices and their issues and speak them over with Moses and the elders. So, the “communications center” – the Tabernacle – was built almost as soon as the Torah was given, since it was the nerve center of the entire Jewish people as they traveled through the desert.

However, the Torah was given twice. The first time, before Moses could come down from Mt. Sinai, the golden calf was built and as a result, Moses broke the tablets. He then returned up Mt. Sinai to ask for forgiveness for the Jews. He only came down again on the following Yom Kippur, with the second tablets, which were the Torah as we know it today. And that’s why there are different opinions about when the Tabernacle was built:

1) One opinion (Zohar part 2, 224A) says that both the command to build the tabernacle and the donation of materials took place as the Torah was first given, before the sin of the golden calf.

2) A second opinion (Midrash Tanhuma, Terumah ch. 8) says that the command and donation took place after the sin of the golden calf, on Yom Kippur (when the second tablets were given).

3) A third opinion (Zohar part 2, 195A) says the command was given before the golden calf, but the actual building took place only after Yom Kippur.

The Jewish people experienced three psychological positions during these three periods. Immediately before the Torah was given, they were initiated into Jewish “people-hood,” and were like converts, with a pure and unsullied slate. So, before the sin of the golden calf, they could be compared to “tzaddikim,” righteous people with no blemish on their records.

After the sin of the golden calf, they were the opposite – they required atonement and indeed Moses asked G-d for atonement on their behalf – which they wanted and waited for. And finally, after Yom Kippur, they were like ba’alei tshuva – “masters of return,” who delved deep into their own souls to find and rectify the mistakes of the past and resolve not to repeat them in the future.

The truth, though, is that despite the three opinions, only one tabernacle was built. All three opinions have their place, and it’s necessary to understand all of them, but since only one tabernacle was built, it must have somehow included all of the above opinions. And indeed, we find that in the tabernacle, within the holy ark, were placed both the shards of the first tablets and the complete second tablets. The shards of the first tablets corresponded to the Jews as they were both before the golden calf (as “tzaddikim”) and after (when they were in need of atonement – broken tablets). The complete tablets represent the Jews as they were after Yom Kippur – as ba’alei tshuva. And that’s why all three metals, gold, silver and copper were found in the tabernacle, because they corresponded to the three above positions of the Jews, as follows:

Gold, in the Torah, has intrinsic value. People buy it because they want to hold on to it and possess it. Silver, on the other hand has some intrinsic value, but more value as coinage. Its true value is in its purchasing ability – silver is recognized everywhere as a medium for purchasing other products. Copper, though, has value only as coinage – few people purchase copper in order to hold on to it, but most people recognize its purchasing power. Therefore, it has the least intrinsic value of all the three metals, and is the most common material for manufacturing coins. The three metals line up with the three categories of Jews as follows:

Copper (“nechoshet” in Hebrew, from the word “nachash,” meaning snake), which has little intrinsic value, corresponds to the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, before their atonement was complete. Silver, on the other hand, has intrinsic value, but the value is limited, similar to a tzaddik, or righteous person, who can bring G-dliness and spirituality into the world according to the limitations proscribed by the Torah. Thus, silver corresponds to the state of the Jews before the golden calf, when they were like “tzaddikim,” fulfilling Torah and mitzvot. But gold has unlimited intrinsic value. It corresponds to the “ba’al tshuva,” whose drive and motivation to return to the One Above and serve Him from all of his heart, is unlimited. Thus, it is comparable to the Jews after Yom Kippur, when they were like ba’alei tshuva who mended their ways and returned to G-d. All three are combined in the tabernacle because all categories of Jews are needed – all Jews come together in the tabernacle.

In the supernal “sephirot” above, silver corresponds to “chesed,” (kindness), or love of G-d. It is an avoda, or service from Above to below, bringing G-dliness down into the world. G-dliness comes into the world in set, limited quantities, just as silver coins acquire a specific value. Gold, though, corresponds to “gevura,” or “judgment,” serving G-d as a ba’al tshuva from below to Above. Gold does not take on a specific value. When a Jew returns to the One Above with all his heart, the horizon is infinite – there is no limit to what he can achieve. It’s all dependent upon the intrinsic value in our souls – and that’s unlimited.

The danger, though is that we might think that we’re like gold and silver – too busy either bringing G-dliness into the world by learning Torah or returning to Him via prayer to get involved with the physical world. We might tend to leave that to the “copper” category, who have value only as “coinage” – doing good deeds in the world. But, the lesson of the tabernacle is just the opposite – we’re all in it together. All Jews, whatever is the emphasis of their service of G-d, must get involved with each other and with the world. In that way, we’ll soon build the true and everlasting tabernacle, here in Jerusalem soon in our days!

Adopted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 6, page 152 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem