Last time, we saw the people of Israel bringing excessively bountiful donations for the building of the Tabernacle. As one of the Midrashim says, “they came both men and women; that is to say, in their eagerness they pressed against each other. The men and women came as a huge throng when they brought their gifts…” We questioned how it could be that the same very people who had so recently expressed such terrible lack of faith in the story of Golden Calf, now seemed to be completely renewed, with their hearts soft, open and tender. What happened between the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle? What had changed the hearts of the people of Israel?
In order to find an answer, we have to understand what happened between these two episodes—we need to look for an answer in the previous Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Much happened during this portion, and we hear a lot about the Golden Calf, about Moses’ and God’s wrath, about broken tablets. All this happens in chapter 32. Then we enter the 33rd chapter, which describes events that happened right after that, right after the Golden Calf incident and the tablets broken by Moses. At the end of the previous chapter, we saw Moses interceding for the people and managing to convince God to forgive Israel. Already, at the beginning of this chapter, he receives God’s confirmation: Yes, He will allow Moses to continue his mission of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land, the Land flowing with milk and honey. However, in His words we can still hear the echo of His recent wrath. While commanding Moses and Israel to depart for the Land, God says, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Well, this seems to be a definitive statement, completely clear and expected, completely fair after the terrible sin the people of Israel had committed. Actually, this is the very subject of this Torah portion—it’s all about this, about God’s holiness and how He and His presence cannot, by any means, dwell with a sinful people: I will not go up in your midst …
How great must be the reader’s surprise, however, when only several verses later we read, And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” How could it possibly be? We know that He is not a man that He should change his mind, so what can explain this seemingly contradictory and sudden change of His decision?
In most translations, these two seemingly contradictory verses from Exodus 33 are rendered with similar words: “I will not go up in your midst,” and “I will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But it’s not like this in Hebrew: in verse 3 God says, I will not go up in your midst, while in verse 14 He says: My face will go with you. If we recall that prior to this, the Lord promised to send His Angel: “And I will send My Angel before you,” and “Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared,” then we arrive at the Angel of His Face—Malakh Panav. Who is this angel?
In full, this name occurs in only one place, in the book of Isaiah: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence (Malach Panav) saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” However, there are several instances in the Hebrew Bible where we see this special Angel of God’s presence, who speaks in the name of God and delivers His message. This Angel speaks from the first person as if he was God; he stands before the people in the form of a man, and after meeting him, people realize that they have seen God, yet their lives have been spared. We see him in Genesis 18 talking to Abraham, in Genesis 22 stopping Abraham on Mount Moriah, and in Genesis 32 wrestling with Jacob at Peniel; in the book of Joshua, he is the commander of the Lord’s army who commissions Joshua to fight the battles for the Land; we see him talking to Gideon, and appearing before Samson’s parents. “The Angel of the LORD” carries out priestly duties of reconciliation. “The Angel of the LORD” even has authority to forgive sins. And it’s him that we find here as well—God is sending the Angel of His Face to lead Israel!
Historically, Christian tradition has mainly understood this Angel to be the pre-incarnate Jesus. On the other hand, Rabbinic Judaism has given this Angel a Judeo-Greek name, “Metatron” מֵטַטְרוֹן (Metatron), meaning “the one next to the throne” (compiled from two Greek words μετὰ (meta) and θρóνος (thronos). The Jewish sages explain: “This is [the angel] Metatron, whose name is like the name of his Master: The numerical value of מֵטַטְרוֹן  equals that of שַׁדַּי ”. The important fact is, however, that whatever we think about this Angel of the Lord, him leading Israel became a game-changer, as we would say today. His presence completely changed the hearts of the people of Israel! Only his presence can explain the amazing transformation that we witness between the Torah Portions Ki Tisa and Vayakhel, when the people who just recently showed such terrible lack of faith, were completely renewed and changed. Only his presence can explain that amazing transformation from the Golden Calf to Mishkan – and I believe that this is one of the most profound and most overlooked mysteries of Israel.
I cannot finish this article about Malach Panav without saying one last thing: this amazing promise of His Presence was given to Israel, in the first place! The special Angel was sent with His people, and ever since His Presence has been going with Israel! Do you realize what that actually means? Throughout all these centuries, through all the pain and suffering we endured – the pogroms, ghettos, concentration camps, all those horrible periods of complete loneliness and misery, when to everyone, including ourselves, we seemed to be utterly abandoned – in reality, we were not alone, the Lord has been walking with us! In all their affliction, He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence (Malach Panav) saved them.
 Sanh. 38b