A few weeks ago, I shared a study session with parents of our congregation’s third-graders. The curriculum for the third grade includes study of the Ten Commandments. In the course of our conversation, I asked the group which of the Ten Commandments they felt was the most difficult to observe. The answer was not: “Do not covet.” It wasn’t “Honor your father and mother,” and thankfully, it wasn’t “You shall not murder.” The general consensus was that observing Shabbat was the most difficult.
Why? The sense among the parents was there was just way too much to do. Kids had sports contests, play practice, dance recitals. They talked about how they spent so much time during the week working and managing the household, it seemed too difficult to take time out for rest, for reflection, for Shabbat.
So it seemed interesting to me in looking at this week’s portion, Parashat Vayak’heil,
that Moses, having just returned from the summit of Sinai bearing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, calls the community of Israel together. And what is his first message? Observe 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. . . “ (Exodus 35:2).
Why, we must ask, does Moses reiterate a discussion of Shabbat just before the work on the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, is to be organized? I think one answer is found in comparing how the Mishkan is described earlier in Exodus and how the task is redefined here.
Earlier, in Exodus, chapter 25, God speaks to Moses and asks that the Israelites bring gifts from anyone whose heart is moved to build the Mishkan. The text tells us the purpose of the project: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Ultimately, the Tabernacle was to be built in some measure as a home for God in the midst of the community, a palace wherein the Holy Presence might reside. In our parashah this week, however, there is no mention of God’s ultimate intent, no reassurance that God’s Presence will dwell in the sanctuary they now choose to build.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his great work on the Sabbath, wrote that Jewish ritual and celebration is a form of architecture too, but whereas Bezalel and Oholiab are given the honor to serve as architects of holy space, each of us is given the responsibility to be an architect of holy time.1 The Sabbath, Heschel writes, “is a palace in time which we build.”2 Given the stresses of the workday week, the pressures we feel to build and achieve, it is natural that we feel some sense of distance from God and our spiritual selves. As Heschel writes, “Six days a week the spirit is alone, disregarded, forsaken, forgotten. Working under strain, beset with worries, enmeshed in anxieties, man has no mind for ethereal beauty. But the spirit is waiting for man to join it.”3
It is Shabbat that allows our spirits and our selves to become reconnected and reacquainted. The Chasidic rabbi, Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, in his commentary Mei HaShiloach, teaches that the whole reason for building the Mishkan was for the people to come together as one to rekindle their understanding and passion for real holiness. In building a palace for God in their midst, they were in fact learning to build a palace for God in their souls. They realized that each and every Israelite had a role to play in building a home for God, “for if so much as a nail were missing, the Shechina (God’s holy presence) would not rest in the Mishkan.”4 But it was in their coming together as a community, in seeing the holiness in each other and in their common work, that God’s love would be felt. And it is only on Shabbat, when we take a step back, that we complete the work of creation in building that palace of holy time.
The six days of our week need to be spent in work, and as our tradition guides us, that work must ultimately be for the sake of heaven. And when we think of the work we do in our careers and in taking care of our families and communities, that work seems very holy indeed. But Moses teaches us here that even the holy work of constructing the Tabernacle is made profane if we forsake Shabbat to build it.
We bring gifts from our heart to build the Tabernacle, a palace for God in our midst. And God brings us the gift of Shabbat, in order that we may build a palace in time for God to dwell in our souls, and our selves.
1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Noonday Press, 1951), p. 8
2. Ibid, pp.14–15
3. Ibid, p. 65
4. Betsalel Philip Edwards, ed. and trans, Living Waters – The Mei HaShiloach: A Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza (New York: Jason Aronson Publishers, 2001), pp. 174–175
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.