At the beginning of Parashat Vayak'heil Moses convokes the entire community and reiterates the commandment on Shabbat observance:
These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you 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 35:1-3)
Then Moses instructs them regarding the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle or portable sanctuary), which would accompany them through the wilderness and which presaged the building of the Temple. The Creation of the world and the building of the Mishkan are parallel activities. Through them we see how time and space are both the locus of potential sanctification.
In The Sabbath1, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. ...Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate."
The sanctification of time makes Judaism portable and turns us away from an overemphasis on the building of edifices that honor the builders more than the Creator of the Universe. However, our parashah describes the building of the Mishkan as a divinely ordained project that requires crafts people of great skill and a project supervisor, Bezalel, who is endowed with "a divine spirit (ruach Elohim) of skill (chochmah), ability (t'vunah), and knowledge (daat) in every kind of craft" (Exodus 35:31; 31:3). The work follows an architectural blueprint provided by God. So inspiring is the project that the community volunteers to provide more resources than are required and Moses has to instruct them to stop making donations. The people are inspired by the building of sacred space, which is meant to draw them to the Presence of the Divine.
In Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer2 we read:
In ten sayings the world was created...and in three it was finalized. And these are they: Chochmah (Skill), Tevunah (ability), and Da'at (Knowledge); as it is stated: "The Eternal with Chochmah founded the earth, by Tevunah established the heavens, by His Da'at the depths were split asunder" (Proverbs 3:19-20). With the same three, the Mishkan was made, as it states [about Bezalel the craftsman for the Mishkan]: "I have filled him with the spirit of God, in Chochmah, Tevunah, and Da'at" (Exodus 31:3). With the same three qualities the Temple was built; "His mother was from Naftali, his father from Tyre, and he was filled with Chochmah, Tevunah, and Da'at." (I Kings 7:14)
Creating the world and building the Mishkan require the same skill: Bezalel and God share the same qualities skill, ability, and knowledge. Time and space are both available as venues for the human-divine encounter. Shabbat is the culmination of the Creation of the world. It is the time to step back from work and appreciate the beauty of Creation and our small but important place within the overall scheme. The Mishkan is an invitation for God to dwell among us. Shabbat focuses our attention on God's Creation, and our role as its stewards and as instruments for human dignity. These roles are reflected in the two reasons given for the observance of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments: Shabbat is both a memorial to Creation (Exodus 20:11) and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The world is constructed by God as gift to humankind. The Mishkan is a gift to God built through generous contributions and skilled labor to welcome the Divine Presence. Both Shabbat and the Mishkan are manifestations of institutional religion.
In The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,3 Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests:
We began with the counter-realities of Shabbat and Mishkan, of a condition in which fire, medium of the Mishkan achievement, may not be kindled on Shabbat. Perhaps we may now say that these two modalities represent two ways of living time. Fire represents the urgency of productive time, lived for its objective creations, for the forms of self-knowledge that devolve from the inner heat. The work of the Mishkan, then, stands as testimony to the creative power of the people, to the many ways, the thirty-nine ways, of relating to the world and transforming it, in which fire is essential. This work is, at base, a manifestation not of the kinds of objects in space that are created, but of a way of using time: purposeful, productive, often ruthless.
As against this modality, there is Shabbat: "You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day." Shabbat is virtually defined as non-fire: that is, as time not used, unproductive, the shadow opposite of the making of the Mishkan.
God is invited into our lives through Shabbat and God is invited into the world through the creative work of humankind. All of the skill, ability, and knowledge that were required for building the Mishkan are what we must bring to our workaday world. As the Mishkan and the world each had a divine plan, we should strive to create lives that reflect our desire to participate in a divine plan. This requires the sanctification of both time and space. The path to sanctification, is derived from Torah study, which connects the human and the divine, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary as we recreate the world for six days and celebrate it on Shabbat.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), p. 8
- Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 3
- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 2001), p. 495
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In the late 1970s, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) promoted the slogan, "We are one!" It was a powerful tool used across the spectrum of American Jewish life to foster a sense of unity. After delivering a Rosh HaShanah sermon using that theme, my senior colleague asked me one question as we returned to the office: "Do you really believe that?" My answer at the time was most positive.
Over the years, my early optimistic perspective has been challenged time after time. Fostering unity in the Jewish community can be difficult, prompting some to say that perhaps the only factor that can bring all Jews together is anti-Semitism – but even that issue may not always suffice. The opening words of Vayak'heil tell us that Moses convoked the whole community. With all of this in mind, reading and thinking about what is required to bring all the people together seems overwhelming.
Initially, Moses gathered the entire Israelite nation to hear the word of God. Their response was proclaimed in the plural, Kol asher diber Adonai naaseh v'nishma, "All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do" (Exodus 24:7; see also 19:8, 24:3). Individuals did not respond in the singular, "I will do," but rather in the plural, "we will do." They were receiving the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. No individual has the capacity to fulfill each one. A koheinhas responsibilities that cannot be performed by an Israelite. A king is told what he alone must do. It is only the collective community that can fulfill all. That unity was shattered with the incident of the Golden Calf.
Moses now gathers everyone to build the Mishkan, the sanctuary. We have already learned in Parashat T'rumah that the offerings were to be made to build the Mishkan so that God, the Divine Presence, would be able to dwell amidst the people. There can be no clearer message. When all Israel gathers as one, it is only then that we can be truly blessed with the Presence of the Holy One.
Rabbi Alan J. Katz is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York.
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