Monday, February 25, 2008

Vayakhel 1

Vayakhel is a Parsha dealing with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It begins, however, with three verses about observing Shabbat. The Rabbis learn from this juxtaposition that the activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath are those activities that were necessary to construct the Mishkan. They also learn from this that keeping Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan. Despite the importance of the work, the Jews in the desert were not permitted to desecrate Shabbat in order to complete it quicker.

What is the connection between Shabbat and the Mishkan that enables us to learn that only the activities used in its construction are prohibited? Perhaps there are other, or different, actions that we should not perform on Shabbat. Also, why does the Torah need to tell us that we may not build the Mishkan on Shabbat? Isn’t it obvious that we cannot desecrate Shabbat for any Mitzvah, regardless of its importance. What is it about the Mishkan that may have led us to believe that its construction takes precedence?

There are many parallels between the construction of the Mishkan and the creation of the universe. The Talmud (Megilla 10b) states that on the day when the Mishkan was erected, G-d showed the same happiness as the day on which the world was created. The world is a “dwelling place” for G-d, where His presence can be perceived by His creations. Likewise, the Mishkan was the focal point for G-d’s presence on earth. G-d is called Shaddai because when the world was being created it was unrolling like thread from a loom until G-d said “Dai”, enough (Talmud Chagiga). Similarly, the people brought so many donations for the Mishkan, that the workmen were forced to say “enough” (Exodus 36; 7). On a Kabbalistic level, the world was created with the three highest sefirot (spheres), chachma, bina and da’as, i.e.,wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Similarly, the Mishkan’s prime architect was Betzalel, who is described (ibid. 35; 31) as “filled with wisdom, understanding and knowledge” (which explains the meaning of his name Betzalel, in the shadow of G-d).

The Mishkan is a symbolic map of the spiritual reality of creation. It is also the ultimate fulfilment of the purpose of creation (v. Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the book of Exodus). Therefore those activities needed for its construction are a representation of the same activities that G-d used in creating the universe. Obviously G-d doesn’t do “work” in any physical sense, in fact the creation of the world was through G-d’s “utterances” rather than through actions (v. Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 5); but the Hebrew word for “word”, davar is the same as the word for “thing”. At some level the essence of everything is G-d’s word made physical. So if we could understand the deepest meaning of words, we could understand the nature of things, and similarly if we look at the physical activities involved in creating something, we can understand its name and essence.

Shabbat is described as a testimony that G-d created the world in six days, and that on the seventh day He rested from all His Melacha (creative activity). The Melacha that G-d did in creating the world is exactly the same Melacha that was used to build the Mishkan. It is not coincidental that the prohibited activities on Shabbat are the same as those involved in building the Mishkan, because both are the activities of the creation of the world. We acknowledge G-d’s creation of the world, and His mastery over it, by abstaining from those creative activities that G-d rested from when He created the world, which are revealed to us through the building of the Mishkan.

This also explains why the Torah needs a specific instruction not to build the Mishkan on Shabbat. Since both are an acknowledgement of G-d’s creation of the world, one may have made the erroneous assumption that building the Mishkan could serve as a substitute for observing Shabbat. Therefore the Torah needs to tell us that this is not so. Shabbat is an eternal reminder, and cannot be replaced, even by another form of acknowledging G-d’s sovereignty.

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