Two significant events followed the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai: a) the sin of the Golden Calf b) the making of the Miskan ("Tabernacle"), the portable sanctuary the Israelites built in the desert.

In the Torah, the accounts of these two events are intertwined, with the narrative alternating between them. How did they actually occur in time? Which one came first—the calf or the Tabernacle?

Amongst the commentaries, there are no less than three different answers to this question.

1) According to the Zohar, first came G‑d's command to build the Mishkan, followed by the people's donation of their gold and other materials for its construction. After that came the sin of the Golden Calf. Indeed, the implication is that it was only because they had consecrated the materials for the Mishkan before they were tainted by their sin that the people were able to later build the divine abode in their midst.

2) According to Rashi, the sin of the Golden Calf came first. Everything about the Mishkan — the divine command, the donation and the construction — occurred after the people had repented from their sin. The implication is that had they not sinned by worshipping a calf of gold, there would not have been a Mishkan at all!

3) According to Nachmanides, first came the divine command to build the Mishkan; then came the people's sin and repentance; and after that, the people's donation of the materials for the Mishkan. (This is actually the order in which these events are recounted in the Torah.)

What is the deeper meaning behind these three versions?

The Mishkan represents the idea of "making G‑d a home in the physical world": taking the materials of our physical existence and, by dedicating them towards a G‑dly purpose, transforming them into something that expresses and reveals the goodness and perfection of their Creator.

The question is: who best equipped to build this "home for G‑d"?

One approach is that only the pure and righteous tzaddik, only someone who is untainted by the materiality of the world, can sanctify it. For if a person is himself part of this lowly existence, how could he elevate it?

A second approach says: If the tzaddik is completely untouched by anything lowly and negative, how could he sanctify it? Only the baal teshuvah, one who has succumbed to the temptations of the material world and triumphed over them, can now raise it up to holiness.

But what about the sinner? One who has neither remained above, nor fallen and climbed out, but is still stuck in the morass of the material? According to the third view, the command to build the Mishkan came before the sin of the Golden Calf, but the implementation of this command began only after it. This means that these divine instructions remained in force even as the people were worshipping their idol of gold. In other words, a positive act, and act of holiness, is positive and holy regardless of where you are. Every individual, regardless of his current spiritual station, is empowered to make his life a home for G‑d.