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The Dangling Conversation

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Moshe was the greatest teacher the Jewish People ever had, and that was his lasting legacy. He has been known for millennia as "Moshe Rabenu," Moshe our Master Teacher - not Moshe the king, or the redeemer; he was, above all the other roles he filled, the quintessential teacher - even though he led our ancestors out of bondage, navigated the path to the Promised Land, represented us and pleaded on our behalf, and so much more.

This week's Torah reading begins with what may be the quintessential teaching moment, which presented itself after several months that were perhaps too eventful, too exciting: The Israelites had left Egypt, had witnessed countless miracles, had fought a war against Amalek, had received the Torah and experienced a level of prophecy never before known to mankind; some of them then went on to commit the colossal error of the golden calf - all in the space of a few short months. The fate and future of the Jewish People hung in the balance, and Moshe's prayers on their behalf were accepted. God forgave them, and Moshe was invited to return to the mountaintop, and to receive new Tablets of Testimony to replace the Tablets that had been shattered when the nation sinned.

Now, upon his descent, Moshe finally has an opportunity to teach the assembled nation. There is a great deal of material to cover; God had given him so many laws, so many concepts and details, on his various trips to the summit, and Moshe is faced with an educational and spiritual challenge: Where to begin?

Moshe's first lesson is Shabbat:

Moshe then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. (Shmot 35:1-3)

While there may be many reasons why, of all things, Moshe chose Shabbat for their first topic of study, it is worth recalling that the laws of Shabbat were the final topic covered by God before He handed Moshe the first set of Tablets.

And God said to Moshe: Speak to the Israelite People and say: You must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that God has consecrated you. You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his nation. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the People of Israel, for in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moshe the two Tablets of the Covenant, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. (Shmot 31:12-18)

The repetition of the laws of Shabbat, though, is not a literary device; something far more important than narrative style lies behind the choice of Moshe's first lesson plan.

Let us consider the timing: The laws of Shabbat were the last to be communicated by God to Moshe before He ordered him to return to the camp and contend with the sin of the golden calf. It stands to reason, then, that the laws of Shabbat were spoken and Moshe was given the Tablets at the very same time as the people down below were forming and worshiping the golden calf. The stark disparity between the two scenes - the summit and the base of Mount Sinai - should be considered when we read the verses with which God introduced the observance of Shabbat to Moshe. A "split screen view" of events makes God's words concerning Shabbat observance even more meaningful, and somewhat intriguing:

The Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the People of Israel.

Despite God's later threat to eradicate the entire nation, despite the enormity of the sin the people were committing at that very moment, God was establishing the ground rules for an eternal covenant with the Jewish People, and the symbol of that covenant: Shabbat. As the people at the foot of Mount Sinai were sinning, God revealed to Moshe that the Jewish People will keep Shabbat forever - which, by extension, means that Jewish People will be equally eternal.

But God adds another piece of information: Desecration of Shabbat is punishable by death. Those who had worshipped the golden calf, as well as those who stood by passively and silently, deserved a death sentence. They had trampled the first two of the Ten Commandments, but at the very moment they should have been sentenced to eradication, God taught that anyone who observes the Shabbat will be spared. Anyone who testifies, through their Shabbat observance, that God, and not some man-made idol, created and sustains the universe, actively repudiates the golden calf and all it stands for. God created the remedy at the very moment the ailment was ravaging the camp.

The renowned Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927) remarked that "more than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews." This astute comment is a very potent religious, sociological and cultural observation, but Ahad Ha'Am missed the additional aspect of biblical exegesis: God declared that the covenant with the Jewish People, with Shabbat as its most potent marker, would, in fact, be upheld throughout the generations. The Jews would survive the golden calf episode, and would bear eternal testimony to God's creation of heaven and earth.

This, then was the content of Moshe's first lesson to the Jewish People: Shabbat, the most central expression of our eternal covenant with God. For the people who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received this first lesson from Moshe, the message was even stronger: Despite the golden calf, despite the fact that they deserved to be expunged from the pages of history, they were given a method of both reaffirming and proving their belief in God. Shabbat observance was given to us in order to elevate the six days of the working week and allow us to identify with and emulate God. Shabbat, for the Jews in the desert and for every Jew ever since, has been the sign of our fidelity to God, of our covenant with Him. From the generation that survived the golden calf debacle to the present day, Shabbat is saved us, and continues to save us, when the future looks bleak.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018

For more essays and lectures on Parashiot Vayehel Pikudai:

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