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Several years ago, a distinguished theologian was honored by a prominent organization for his crusading efforts on behalf of civil rights. However, when he got up to speak, the message he delivered was not one the audience was expecting. Much to their surprise, he admonished the Jewish group for their abandonment of mitzvah observance. He spoke about how the Jewish concern with social justice had its ultimate roots in the Bible. And he expressed fear that, having already abandoned many of the mitzvot, it was just a matter of time before many Jews (or certainly their offspring) would abandon the cause of civil rights as well.
This observation is a powerful one. If a people's ideals are derived from a particular source, how long can those ideals will be retained if they are distanced from that source?
Centrality of Shabbat
This question is appropriate for this week's Torah reading. Much of the parsha describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites while traveling through the desert.
The Torah emphasizes how Moses gathering together the Israelites to exhort them to observe the Shabbat. The verse even goes out of its way to say how all groups within the Jewish nation were present for Moses' explanation.
The Shevet Meshor, a contemporary commentary, notes that this is the only time in the Torah where we find the Jewish people "gathered together" ("vayakel") in such a way. This is because the Torah wishes to emphasize the centrality of Shabbat to the Jewish collective identity. Shabbat is at the core of Jewish life ― and without its celebration, it is but a matter of time before Jewish identity is lost. Ahad HaAm, some 100 years ago, commented that, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."
Time Over Space
Moreover, the very essence of the Jewish people is tied to this weekly holiday. Other nations' identities are rooted in a particular plot of land. But for the Jewish people, it was always Shabbat ― the island in time ― that sustained them. It isn't surprising that for the eternal people, the dimension of time, not space, is at the center of Jewish existence.
This ascendancy of "time over space" is emphasized in this week's parsha. Though the Israelites were engaged in building the tabernacle, they had to stop their efforts when the Shabbat arrived. As Rashi explains, this is why the commandment to keep Shabbat precedes the construction of the Mishkan in the Biblical narrative.
Harmony of Self and Society
The Torah states: "You may work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a complete day of rest for God" (Exodus 35:2). Jews are exhorted to maintain an absolutely complete rest on the Sabbath. The commentaries explain that on Shabbat, people should strive to free their minds of worries of the mundane week, and to focus on the truly important issues of life. Worry about business is to be replaced by involvement with one's family, the acquisition of knowledge, and helping of others. The need to establish a harmonious society ― to "gather the people together" ― is central to the whole concept of Shabbat.
Shabbat has always served to remind Jews of (among other things) essential humanitarian values like social justice and the well-being of others. Abandonment of Shabbat observance can have great impact, both on one's Jewish identity and on more universalistic concerns as well.