According to many commentators, God only commanded the construction of the Tabernacle after the sin of the Golden Calf, as the quintessential sign that God had forgiven Israel for its grievous sin. Other commentators disagree and claim that the Tabernacle would have been constructed whether or not the people had sinned. In either case the laws regarding building the Tabernacle were only revealed to the people after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second Tablets of the Law, after having received God’s pardon for the sin of the Golden Calf.
That forgiveness is encapsulated in the Thirteen Principles of Compassion that God taught Moses after he begged God to forgive the people. These Thirteen Principles of Compassion are one of the most important prayers in Judaism, recited in many congregations most days of the year but by all during the months of Elul and Tishrei—the season of repentance when Jews beseech God for forgiveness and atonement, on individual and communal levels. The Thirteen Principles of Compassion form the bases of the special Elul prayers called Selichot that are recited by Sephardim the entire month of Elul and by Ashkenazim for at least four days preceding Rosh Hashanah. If Rosh Hashanah comes early in the week then Selichot prayers are begun the preceding Saturday night.
It is interesting to note that the Tabernacle’s construction from thirteen materials alludes to the very reason it was constructed. Not only do the Tabernacle and the Temple serve as a place where God and man can “meet” and draw closer to one another, they also serve as the focal point where through Divine service man can elicit God’s forgiveness, atonement, and compassion. It is precisely these attributes we hope to elicit through reciting Selichot and in fact through all our prayers and deeds from Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance to its culmination on Yom Kippur.
Another essential connection between the number thirteen and the Tabernacle is revealed through two other words with the same numerical value: “one” (echad) and “love” (ahavah). The Tabernacle was meant to be the place where love and unity would draw down God’s Presence and oneness upon Israel, so that it could permeate the entire world. Emphasizing this message, the Torah commanded that the Tabernacle’s curtains should be connected so that the holy place would “become one,” teaching us that its very purpose was to engender oneness, unity, and love between God and the Jewish people (Exodus 26:6). The Selichot prayers help jump-start the Days of Awe and are meant to awaken our love of God who we pray will respond with His love and Divine compassion.
Since the Thirteen Principles of Compassion were given after the breaking of the first tablets of the law there is the further connection to the above insight relating to King David and worlds of Tohu and Tikkun. As the well know Chassidic saying teaches us: There is nothing as a whole as a broken heart. Selichot helps open our hearts to our own and the worlds brokenness and the great need for repair and rectification.
Another deep connection: The cause that lead to the breaking of the tablets was the people making a Golden Calf. This term in Hebrew, egel hazahav equals numerically 122, the same as koach hamedameh, “the power of imagination.” Whether through meditation, introspection or prayer we use the “power of imagination in a positive manner in order to rectify its negative manifestation of fantasy and an overblown sense of ego. The Selichot prayers gives us an opportunity to open the gates to a New Year.