Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 12, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei

This week we have a double portion, Vayakhel-Pikudei which are the last two Torah portions of the Book of Exodus. These portions continue the telling of the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents. At the start of the portion, Moses commands the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath. Why does the commandment to observe Shabbos precede the instructions to begin the construction of the Tabernacle?

There are multiple answers to this question. First, the Torah is emphasizing the importance of observing the Sabbath. One might have thought that the building of the Tabernacle outweighed the observance of the Sabbath. Since the Tabernacle was for the service of G-d, perhaps one could engage in the work of its building even on the Sabbath. But, no, the building of the Tabernacle could not be done on Shabbos.

Second, many of the laws of the Sabbath are learned from the building of the Tabernacle. The Torah commands us to “do no work on the seventh day.” But, what is work? Is work that which I do to earn a living? Maybe, to observe Shabbos, I shouldn’t go to my job and that’s it. Clearly that is not how we observe the Sabbath. Is work physical exertion? Perhaps we are prohibited from doing strenuous activities on the Sabbath? No, many things that are prohibited on the Sabbath require very little exertion. The work that is prohibited on Sabbath is creative activity and the Oral Torah defines what these activities are from the construction of the Tabernacle. Any action that went into the building of the Tabernacle is by definition “work” and is thus prohibited on Shabbos.

I want to offer a third explanation. The Tabernacle, which is the model for the Temple, and the Sabbath are two distinct conceptions of holiness. The Tabernacle is a holy place, while the Sabbath is a holy time.

The conception of a holy place is easy for us to grasp. When Moses encounters G-d for the first time at the burning bush, he is told to remove his sandals because “you are standing on holy ground.” We call Israel the Holy Land. Jerusalem is a holy city. And the Temple is called in Hebrew the Mikdash which contains the word Kadosh – holy. The Mikdash is a sanctuary. (Sanctuary, by the way, contains the Latin word sanctus which means holy.) Any of us who have been in Israel have experienced a holy place. We can be awe-struck by a holy place such as the Western Wall. We intuitively understand that there are behaviors that are not appropriate in a holy place. One can only imagine what it was like being in the Temple in Jerusalem. One would get a sense of the tremendous power of G-d in the Temple. It seems to me that one, perhaps, has a similar feeling of the grandeur of G-d visiting one of the large ornate cathedrals in Europe. We can appreciate how such structures were built to inspire people with a sense of holiness.

The Sabbath is a conception of holiness in time. This I believe was a specifically Jewish insight. One can look at the Sabbath or the Festivals as structures of holy time. The Sabbath is a twenty-five hour period in which we can sense the beauty of the spiritual life. It is stated that the Sabbath is a “foretaste of the world to come.” The halachah built a structure around this holy time protecting it from the intrusions of the work-a-day world in which we live.

The holiness of place has a disadvantage. It is limited to that place. The holiness of Jerusalem can only be experienced in Jerusalem. The activities that were carried out in the Temple could only be carried out in the Temple. The holiness in time which we find in the Sabbath can be experienced anywhere. Jews can observe Shabbos wherever they might be. Jews can experience the holiness of the Sabbath in Poland, or Morocco, or Peoria.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Festivals were times when throngs of Jews gathered in the holy city. We can imagine not only the sense of grandeur that was present, but also the feeling of being together with the Jewish People in one place all engaged in the same activity. The Sabbath has a similar effect. By observing the Sabbath, a Jew can sense its holiness, but also can feel connected with the entire Jewish People. The Sabbath links us with other Jews all over the world and throughout time. When we observe Shabbos, even if we are doing so in isolation, we are experiencing something that Jews in all places and times have experienced. Shabbos is also a time when we join together with the community. Once a week we stop our normal activities and make time to worship, study Torah, and enjoy meals with our friends and family. The Shabbos, perhaps more than almost anything else, has kept the Jewish People alive.

Good Shabbos!!!


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