And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that IAdonai have consecrated you. (Exodus 31:12-13)
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. (Exodus 31:14)
Imagine that Ki Tisa does not capture a conversation between Moses and God, but rather a discussion between a construction site owner and a general contractor. God plays the role of owner and Moses, the contractor. Moses is excited to get the project under way. After all, he has just been given the most important construction contract of his life―the building of the Tabernacle.
Moses's natural inclination might be to tell Bezalel and his team of craftsmen to burn the midnight oil to get the Tabernacle completed as quickly as possible. He would order them to work around the clock. We can imagine that the workers, knowing what an important job they were undertaking, would gladly do so. We know the Israelites were so excited about this project that for the first and only time in Jewish history, a building campaign had to turn away donations.
But something critical would be lost if the Tabernacle were built in this manner. It would lack the holiness inherent in the task undertaken. After all, while the building of the Tabernacle is certainly the most important task that the Israelites undertake (with the possible exception of the conquest of the Land of Israel), it pales in comparison with God's construction project―the creation of the world!
God, recognizing the frailty of human beings, takes great pains to remind the Israelites, through Moses, that no matter what task they are engaged in, it is critical that Shabbat be observed. In fact, it is so important that anyone who violates this "workplace rule" will be killed (Exodus 31:14). Lest Moses forget it, this is the very last rule that God gives him before he is sent down the mountain and must deal with the Golden Calf.
It is interesting to note the reason God gives for singling out Shabbat from all the other commandments. At first glance, it would appear that Shabbat is God's sign of the enduring covenant with the Jewish people. I would like to suggest, however, another way of reading this. Perhaps Shabbat is the Jewish people's sign of our enduring covenant with God.
Let's take a moment to explore this idea. If Shabbat symbolizes our part of the covenant with God, what would it mean to engage in building the Tabernacle on Shabbat? The answer is both simple and scary―it would mean that we no longer feel bound by the covenant with God. After all, we would be sending out the message that the Tabernacle is more important than God, the One whom we are told will dwell within it.Talk about an edifice complex!
Let us now take a moment to think about a more modern symbol of Shabbat. My teacher at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Rabbi S. David Sperling, taught that while much of what we think of as "Jewish" actually originated in other cultures, Shabbat is uniquely Jewish. To use his words, "What the Jews gave to the world was the weekend."
Shabbat, then, is an eternal reminder that our most precious commodity-―time―is a gift from God. Our observance of Shabbat is our way of giving thanks to God for this gift.
What does this mean for us living in the twenty-first century? Our lives are busier than ever. We find ourselves constantly on the run. We use our cars as mobile offices and carry BlackBerrys so we are never without e-mail. Even our kids find themselves with too much to do and not enough time to do it. They race from sports practice to music lessons, finally finding just enough time to do their homework before crashing for the night. Despite all the conveniences of modern life, we have not figured out a way to make the day any longer.
I suggest that we need Shabbat more than ever. We need a day to unplug, get off the fast track, and relax. We need a day to remember what a blessing from God our time on earth really is.
Moses had the daunting task of building the Tabernacle so that God could dwell among the Israelites while they traveled through the desert. Moses was far less in need of a reminder of God's role in the world than we are today, yet he ceased from working on this momentous task on Shabbat. What an important example that is for us to follow today!
By the Way
More than Israel kept the Sabbath; the Sabbath has kept Israel. (Ahad Ha'am, HaShiloah iii 6, quoted inA Treasury of Jewish Quotations , edited by Joseph L. Baron [New York: Crown Publishers, 1956], p. 427)
The Hebrews affirmed the reality and importance of time. To them it was not an illusion, something from which man must escape, but something which must be redeemed. (James Hyatt, Prophetic Religion, p. 76, quoted in A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, ibid., p. 499)
Shabbat observance balances all the commandments of the Torah. (Eleazer b. Abina, Jerusalem Talmud,N'darim 3:9)
How do you uphold your side of the covenant with God? What tangible acts do you engage in as part of your personal observance of the covenant?
How do you interpret the statement from Ahad Ha'am? Do you think it is still a relevant statement today?
Consider the statement from Eleazer b. Abina. Why do you think observance of Shabbat might equal observance of all the other Torah commandments combined?
Rabbi Eric B. Stark is the national deputy director, synagogue initiative at AIPAC.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520