"I hope you are excited for the birds!" our guide said to us.
We had just arrived in Tanzania for a safari, and suddenly, I was concerned that we had been assigned to the wrong jeep. "Oh, we're not birdwatchers," I explained. "We came for the regular safari — lions, leopards, rhinos — that sort of thing." I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the rarest and most exotic animals on the planet. Leopards, for example, are famously difficult to spot, and the black rhino is so endangered that there are thought to be only about 5,000 left on the planet.
"But we like birds, too," my husband assured the guide. "We're excited to see them." The guide nodded in approval. "Some people tell me, 'Nicholas, we came all this way for the rhinos and leopards! Don't waste our time with all these birds!' "
The next day I got my first glimpse at why people might be excited for the winged creatures when Nicholas showed us what was, perhaps, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen up close. The feathers on its back were the colors of a peacock, iridescent blue and teal and navy. It was tiny — the size of a small songbird with a belly like a robin, a rich orangey-red, and bright white eyes against a black head. "He's beautiful," I said. "Suberb starling!" Nicholas instructed, while I admired the colors. "Superb" really was the right word. I felt lucky that we had caught a glimpse at such a stunning, unusual being.
"A very common bird!" Nicholas exclaimed. "We will see many of them!"
And so we did. In addition to a few gorgeous leopards, one spectacular rhino walking in the distance, and a week's worth of other exotic wildlife, we saw superb starlings every day: on shrubs, on dead tree stumps, flying by our jeep, walking around every picnic area, even perched outside every bathroom that we stopped at. It was one of the most delightful surprises of the safari: I never tired of them: every single time, those birds took my breath away. Everywhere we went, their presence ensured that there was beauty.
Beautiful, colorful, and rare things are the subject of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayak'heil, which continues the Book of Exodus' long description of the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites are asked to bring their most valuable belongings: precious metals, expensively dyed colorful thread, spices and oils, gemstones of every variety, even dolphin skins (Exodus 35:5-9). With all of these materials, the community's craftsmen will make the most precious of all physical spaces: a place where God will dwell in the people's midst.
In previous Torah portions, God has given all the detailed instructions to Moses. This week, Moses begins to convey those same instructions to the Israelites. Just about the entirety of this week's Torah portion is taken up by those instructions. In fact, the only part that isn't about the Tabernacle takes place in the first three verses, when Moses — before launching into the instructions — reminds the Israelites about the strict laws of Shabbat:
On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (Exodus 35:2-3).
This brief and seemingly unrelated introduction to the rest of the Torah portion has inspired a wealth of commentary about the relationship between Shabbat and the Tabernacle. The most famous interpretation focuses on the theme of work, suggesting that the juxtaposition of the prohibition of work on Shabbat and the description of work to build the Tabernacle indicates a connection: the kinds of work described in the rest of the Torah portion are exactly the kinds of work that are prohibited on Shabbat.
But another line of interpretation of this odd juxtaposition focuses instead on the shared theme of holiness. Both the building of the Tabernacle and the practice of resting on Shabbat are considered holy activities. The reason that Moses mentions both together, some rabbis conclude, is to emphasize the importance of Shabbat (see, for example, Sforno on Exodus 35:2). Even when it comes to the holy work of building the Tabernacle, still, work is not permitted on Shabbat.
We might expect the opposite. Shabbat is nice and all, but for the Israelites who are asked by God to build this masterpiece of rare and precious things, that call to action is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build God a dwelling-place. You might think that awesome responsibility would take precedence over Shabbat. But no, Moses tells the people: even when you are engaged in this rarest form of holiness, this building project that is unique in Jewish history, this communal responsibility that is so sacred it takes up a significant portion of the Book of Exodus — even then, the comparably humdrum holiness of Shabbat still reigns supreme.
Even for those of us who regularly make Shabbat a part of our lives, I think it's hard to embrace this principle fully. Your family might value having Shabbat dinner together every week, but sometimes, things just come up that seem more urgent. Taking time to attend Torah study or to go for a quiet walk outside might be your favorite way to celebrate Shabbat, but sometimes, life gets in the way. And even beyond Shabbat, our tradition emphasizes the importance of special occasions, the sacrifices we should make for them, and the amount of money we should devote to them.
Judaism certainly teaches us to value special occasions, and to make the most of these once-in-a-lifetime sacred moments. But at the same time, Jewish tradition pushes back against our impulse to so easily disrupt the sacred rhythms of our lives for what seems important in the moment. The prioritization of the regular, commonplace sort of holiness represented by Shabbat has deep roots in Judaism. Tadir v'she'eino tadir, tadir kodem, the Talmud famously asserts. "When choosing between that which is frequent and that which is infrequent, the frequent thing takes precedence" (Babylonian Talmud, P'sachim 114a). A life of holiness is built not on those peak moments and special occasions that get so much attention, but in the day-to-day and week-to-week reality in which we live.
It's both absurd and beautiful: ours is a religion where the holiest day of the year takes place every week.
If we are only looking for the leopards in life, what beautiful birds will we be missing? If we are willing to make room for them, these ordinary moments of holiness can take our breath away. Everywhere we go, they ensure that there is always something beautiful.
People would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts. That's right — a scientific study showed that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to administer mild shocks to themselves rather than to sit and do nothing but think.1 Given the myriad of distractions we face daily, from social media to nonstop news coverage, it's no wonder we are not very good at disengaging mentally. But, the ability to quiet our thoughts is actually quite important.
Rabbi Kalisch points out that this week's parashah emphasizes that Shabbat is so important even the holy work of building the Tabernacle must be halted. I would take it one step further. Our Shabbat rest actually elevates the work we do during the rest of the week. Mental rest is vital. Letting our minds wander for as little as five minutes can lead to greater creativity.2 In fact, procrastination can help us come up with unexpected solutions.3 Mental down time is key to our spontaneity, originality, and creativity. Being bored, it turns out, actually makes us more brilliant.4
Today, we have very little downtime. Tasks that used to be "boring," like waiting in line for coffee or walking down the street, can now be filled with checking our phones or listening to a podcast. Shabbat provides us the much needed opportunity to mentally disengage and allow our minds to wander. Even a little bit of a rest one day a week gives us the opportunity to find different ways to approach a situation or to make new connections.
The weekly rest of the artisans who made the Tabernacle allowed them to be even more creative during their six days of work. Part of the holiness of Shabbat is having time to let our mind wander, which actually enhances weekly work. Each Shabbat may we find some mental down time and fuel our creativity for the week ahead.
1. "Most Men Would Rather Shock Themselves than Be Alone with Their Thoughts," Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post, July 3, 2014
2. "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate," Adam Grant, The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2016
4. "The Case for Boredom," Note to Self, formerly known as New Teck City, a podcast from WNYC
Rabbi Erica Asch is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine.
Vayak’heil, Exodus 35:1-38:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 666-679; Revised Edition, pp. 611-624;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 521-544
Haftarah, II Kings 12:5-16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,647-1,648; Revised Edition, pp. 1,451-1,453