Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            In this week's double parsha we have the second rendition of the instructions of how to build the portable temple or mishkan and fabricate all its furnishings.  Please, forgive me, but my eyes glazed over upon reading this stuff the first time.  I have anxiety attacks whenever I see the words:  Some assembly required.  Luckily for us Rabbi types, these weeks have alternative material, namely the four special readings (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and Chodesh), Purim and Pesach.  So, while others are describing the immanent holiday season, with, perhaps, more bravado than common sense, I plan to discuss an aspect of the mishkan.

            Many observers have noticed an interesting anomaly between the two renditions of the mishkan instructions.  When the material is presented in chapters 25 through 31, it ends with the verses:  However, you must observe My Shabbat, for it is a sign between Me and you for all your generations, to know that I am God, who makes you holy.  You shall observe the Shabbat, for it is holy to you; its desecrators shall be put to death, for whoever does work on it, that soul shall be cut off among its people (verses 14 & 15).  But when these temple building directions are repeated at the end of the book of Exodus (chapters 35 to 40), they are introduced by:  For six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God (verse 2).  What gives?  What's the relationship between Shabbat and the temple?  And, finally, what's the reason for the flip flop?  First Shabbat is last; then Shabbat is first.  

            The great commentary, Rashi (1040-1105), helps out with the first question.  The relationship between the mishkan and Shabbat is very simple:  Moshe prefaced the discussion of the details of the work of the Mishkan with the warning to keep the Sabbath, denoting that the work of the Mishkan does not supersede the Sabbath (35:2, based on the Mechilta).  Even though the work on the mishkan is urgent, you still must take off working on Shabbat.  This rule is generalized by many commentaries to mean that the sanctity of things, like the Temple, is of a lesser category than the holiness of time.  A special day is greater than a special thing.  We invented quality time.  So, even though we should miss the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we have something even more precious, namely Shabbat.  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory explained that there are three levels of holiness based on the famous declaration of the angels recorded by the prophet Isaiah, (6:3, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!!).  The third and highest echelon of holy items are people and the soul which resides within us all.  Therefore, we can ignore Shabbat when a human life is in danger.

            This explains why Shabbat is mentioned first in the rerun of the mishkan features, but why is it last in the first run through?  This is, I believe, more complicated.  I think the solution is found by unraveling another conundrum.  Shabbat is described as a sign or ot.  The Hebrew word ot also means a letter.  This word seems to describe something tangible, visible or easily discerned.  No one wants highway signs which aren't clear.  Although sometimes it seems that the DPW never got that memo, especially around downtown Boston.  So, how is Shabbat a sign?  I mean how can I see a clear sign by watching a person not working on Shabbat?  The verse, though, says that the sign is the resting on Shabbat.  I could understand if the sign was singing melodious tunes or eating tasty food, but that's not what the verse says.  It specifies that the sign is expressed by the desisting from creative labor.

            The Rabbis, God bless their ingenious souls, gave us a clue in the Shabbat prayers.  On Shabbat morning in the amidah or silent devotion prayer, they quote our verses containing the prohibition of working and how that's an ot.  Right after that they composed a paragraph stating that Shabbat was only given to Jews, no gentiles allowed.  Huh?!  A non Jew shouldn't refrain from labor on Shabbat?  Well, yes.  The covenant given to us requires Shabbat rest, because that's part of our relationship with God.  It's not about desisting from toil; it's about renewing ties to God.  When we do that we achieve a serenity, a spiritual state, which defines being Jewish.  When fulfilled correctly this regimen produces a new human in harmony with nature and its Creator who is a sign to the world of piety and perfection.  The prayer goes on to appeal to our God and the God of our ancestors to be pleased with our rest.  This describes a Shabbat of serene communion with God, not a day rueful about the big game missed or clock watching for when we can end the boredom.  The Shabbat we're talking about transforms the participant into something new, special and a model to be admired.  Shabbat isn't the visible sign; we're supposed to be.

            Now we can understand why Shabbat is mentioned once first and once last.  It's first to teach us that it's more important than the mishkan and that one of our rules about temple construction is that it can't be done on Shabbat.  It's last because it's the result of temple building.  The beautiful sanctuary isn't the goal; it's a means to inspire us to the real objective, inner spiritual bliss.  There's a Chasidishe saying that there are three levels of song.  The lowest requires words, music and feeling to achieve inspiration.  The next higher stage only needs music and feeling, but the highest plane is reached by songs which are only the feelings.  The tangible, visible or auditory are only significant if they move something inside the observer.  The physical manifestations of our world are for motivating the spiritual and sublime.

            Even though we await the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the renewal of the sacred service there, we can still study those activities for the purpose of achieving their purpose, which is inspiring a closeness with God.  With proper attitude and sensitivity we can fulfill that aim on our Shabbat, but it requires hard work, just a different kind from that of the weekdays.


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