The Torah reading commences with Moses gathering the congregation to make an announcement. According to Rashi, the gathering took place on the day after Yom Kippur. What was so important that everyone had to be there? The observance of Shabbat.
Now transfer the whole scenario to the 21st century and imagine a shule meeting taking place straight after Yom Kippur. There would be plenty of grumbles –
“Haven’t we already spent a day in shule? What’s so urgent today that we have to take another day out of our lives?”
The explanation is that most people think that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all they need to give to God and religion. The weekly Shabbat, they think, is only for the meshugga froom.
Moses knew better; he told them that the test of their devotion to Judaism is not the annual assemblies but the regular weekly commitment.
LIKE THE CREATION
Jewish exegesis compares this week’s sidra with the account of the Creation of the world in B’reshit chapter 1, and concludes that they mirror each other.
In the Creation story God applies Divine wisdom to bringing into being a world that will acknowledge Him. In the Vayakhel narrative we are told of man creating a community centered on the worship of God. Just as God used wisdom, understanding and knowledge (“chochmah”, “t’vunah” and “da’at”) to create His world, so man must use the same qualities to build a human community.
Rashi defines the three terms like this: “‘chochmah’ – what one learns from others; ‘t’vunah’ – finding the meaning in what one has learnt; ‘da’at’ – inspiration”.
Some prefer to read the three terms in reverse order, arguing that first comes knowledge, then understanding, and finally inspiration. Actually one may maintain the original sequence and explain “chochmah” as what derives from others, “t’vunah” as what derives from oneself and “da’at” as what one gains from God.
Even so, we have a problem. Granted that the three terms have human content, how can anyone think of them applying to God, who is surely above such things? Answer: God is not defining Himself but speaking the language of human beings and telling them that these three attributes are the God-given pattern that they should follow.
ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN
When the sanctuary was constructed, it needed appurtenances for worship.
Sh’mot 35 enumerates not just building materials and furniture but colours and adornments – “gold, silver, copper, dyes, linen, skins, acacia wood, oil, spices, precious stones…” Verse 22 records that generous men and women made donations (the women had occupied themselves after the Exodus with spinning goats’ hair).
One can imagine some of the people possessing precious items which they brought with when leaving Egypt, but in the quantities required for the sanctuary?
Targum Yonatan suggests that the gifts for the project were brought by the clouds of heaven. Where did the gifts emanate? The spices, for example, came from the Garden of Eden.
The Zohar sees an ethical lesson, that nothing stolen or obtained by violence was acceptable. It is also possible that the “wings of heaven” denotes donations from God Himself. When He saw how devoted the people were to the construction of the sanctuary, He stepped in and made sure that enough material was there.
FIGHTING FOR TIME
Building the tabernacle was an urgent priority. The work had to proceed with energy and alacrity. But there was one proviso: Shabbat had to be a rest day:
“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you must have a holy day” (Ex. 35:2).
Work had to be suspended for the Sabbath day.
A day had to replace a building in the consciousness of every Israelite. Not that there would not have been grumbles.
“I have so many things to do,”
Moses must have been told;
“how can God expect me to drop everything for twenty-four hours?”
The modern rabbi hears the same complaint:
“Rabbi, you don’t know how fierce the pressure is; Saturday just simply has to be business as usual!”
But nothing should allow Shabbat to be pushed aside or compromised, and it is not because Judaism is harsh or inhumane. The “business as usual” syndrome is possibly good for business, but it is disastrous for human relations, for peace of mind, for personal sanity and the human spirit. People tend to have no time for the family: Shabbat gives them the opportunity.
They have no time to think: Shabbat gives them this precious gift. They have no time to breathe the air and look up from the frantic scurrying that keeps them chained: Shabbat clears their lungs, restores their equilibrium and calms their mind and heart.
Shabbat also turns a person into a mensch: life is so competitive that everyone else is a potential rival, but when Shabbat comes, the other person is a human being like oneself, a friend and not an enemy.
How right the sages were when they said that Shabbat is a foretaste of life in the World to Come, “the day which will be all Shabbat”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com