Shabbos: Tabernacle of Time

March 4, 2013

9 min read


Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

A total mind-body immersive experience.

Let's start with a fun Torah riddle: Some mitzvot we perform through the act of eating (e.g. matzah on Passover), while other mitzvot we perform by thinking (e.g. Torah study). Some mitzvot we perform by speaking (e.g. the Shema), while others we perform by hearing (e.g. blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana). But there are certain mitzvot we perform by immersing ourselves totally – i.e. where our body is completely surrounded by the mitzvah. Try to guess what they are before reading on...

Four Immersions

There are four mitzvot that involve total bodily immersion:

  1. Sukkah – on the holiday of Sukkot, the mitzvah is to be completely enveloped by dwelling in a Sukkah.
  2. Mikveh – at appropriate times, we completely immerse ourselves in the purifying waters of the Mikveh.
  3. Land of Israel – it is a mitzvah to be physically located in the Land of Israel.

These three are similar in that they are all immersions in a particular place.

The fourth answer? Shabbos.

When Shabbos comes, we immerse in a new dimension, a dimension of time. In this way, Shabbos is qualitatively different. Rather than a holy place that we must travel to, Shabbos is a holiness that comes to us, once a week, every week. And while we can always walk away from a Sukkah or leave the Land of Israel, Shabbos has a stability and permanence that transcends the limitations of space. It's an anywhere-in-the-world, expense-free vacation. No travel agent required.

Holy Substance

But what is "holiness" anyway? In Hebrew, kedusha has the connotation of separate and distinct. We make Kiddush on Friday night to distinguish between Shabbat and the weekdays. And Kiddushin, the word for marriage, is so named because the one I marry is designated for a unique status, vis-a-vis every other person in the world.

Holiness, no matter which form it takes, is a metaphysical substance which our souls can perceive. A few years ago, I had just returned to Israel from a two-month trip to America. I flew back to Israel one Wednesday, and had not been off the plane for more than a few minutes, when I saw someone pick up a pen and begin writing. Instinctively I said to myself, "Hey, we don't write on Shabbos!" Then I realized it was Wednesday.

Puzzled, I came to comprehend that the experience of arriving back in Israel had given me a surge of holiness – and I'd intuitively associated it with the feeling of Shabbos. The form may have been different, but the substance was the same. For as Israel is holiness in space, Shabbos is holiness in time.

Shabbos and the Tabernacle

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, Moses gathers together ("Vayakhel") the Jewish people and tells them the following:

"You may do melacha during the six weekdays, but the seventh day shall be holy for you... Do not ignite a fire in any of your dwelling-places on the Shabbos day." (Exodus 35:2-3)

Immediately following this, the Torah describes the tasks necessary for building the Tabernacle – the single holiest site in Judaism. In fact, the remaining 100-plus verses of our parsha are a lengthy, detailed description of the Tabernacle construction. Why does the Torah so starkly juxtapose building the Tabernacle with the mitzvah to observe Shabbos?

Because Shabbos and the Tabernacle are one and the same. They are both links to a transcendent dimension. During the Jewish people's 2,000 years of exile from the land following the destruction of our Holy Temple, Shabbos served as our sanctuary, the place to restore and refresh our perspective in a world often hostile to Torah values. As it is said: "As much as the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews."

Microcosm of Creation

But the connection between Shabbos and the Temple is much deeper. In the verses quoted above, the Torah forbids "melacha" as a violation of Shabbos. This is puzzling because except for the reference to igniting fire, nowhere else in the Torah is there any definition of "melacha." Imagine Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and telling the people not to do melacha - under penalty of death. The first thing I'd want to know is: What's melacha?!

The Talmud (Shabbos 73a) explains: The Torah juxtaposes Shabbos and the Tabernacle to teach us that those activities used to construct the Tabernacle, are the very same activities that are forbidden on Shabbos. For instance, since the Tabernacle involved sewing, we don't sew on Shabbos; since it involved cooking, we don't cook.

Sounds arbitrary? Hardly. The kabbalists explain the connection as follows:

Since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, in our effort to emulate God we must likewise rest on the seventh. But in what way did God rest on the seventh? We first need to know what creative acts God did during the six days.

Here is where the Tabernacle is key: The Tabernacle represents a microcosm of the universe – a distillation of all the energies, patterns and resources found in the material world. Betzalel, chief architect of the Tabernacle, understood the blueprint for its construction only because he understood the code of Creation. In fact, the name Betzalel means "in the shadow of God."

Therefore as the microcosm of creation, the activities performed in constructing the Tabernacle exactly parallel those acts performed by God (so to speak) in creating the world. Since the Tabernacle involved writing, we emulate God's rest by not writing on Shabbos.

Prohibited Shabbos activities – "melacha" – are different from a secular definition of "work." Because on Shabbos we don't refrain from "exertion," we refrain from "creative acts." For example, it may be permitted on Shabbos to carry a heavy box from the basement to the attic, but at the same time it is forbidden to strike a match. Moving the box involves no change in the creative state of the object, whereas lighting the match clearly does.

Peace and Harmony

The effect is profound. On Shabbos, as we cease to create, we no longer feel the need to compete with the world around us.

The Torah specifically chooses "igniting fire" as its lone example of melacha, because it epitomizes the divisive, combustive energies Shabbos seeks to avoid. Instead of imposing our will upon the world, we are in harmony with it. We don't drive a car, work an animal, or even pluck a blade of grass.

On Shabbos, we are all kings. We take advantage of the extra spirituality infused in the Shabbos day to focus on our spiritual goals, which we express through prayer, learning Torah, festive meals, and time spent with family and friends. That is why our parsha is called "Vayakhel," meaning unity. For one day each week, there is no competition. There is only flow.

Getting a Break

Besides a communal peace, Shabbos brings personal peace as well. Six days a week, modern man is locked in a cycle of cell-phone, pager, e-mail, and fax. Shabbos is our chance to step back and momentarily release ourselves from the grip.

Many years ago, I was interviewing a famous rock star at the height of his career. (Sorry, no names.) "Tell me," I asked him, "What is the single greatest part of being a rock star? Is it the fame? The money? The world travel?"

He thought for a moment and said, "The best part about being a rock star is going on stage every night."

Very insightful, I thought. "So tell me," I asked, "What's the best part about going on stage every night? Is it the adoring crowd? The thumping music and bright lights? The incredible party atmosphere?"

With all sincerity, he looked at me and said, "The best part about going on stage every night is that no one can reach me on the telephone."

Here is a man who had everything – money, fame, honor. And all he wanted was a break.

For the Jew, Shabbos is our break. It empowers us – not to discard our workaday world – but to retain our ability to be independent from it. Shabbos gives balance and perspective to our lives and to our week. Just as a cube's six sides receives form and substance from its solid center, so too, the six days of our week are balanced by Shabbos, the inner dime.

Bringing the Redemption

And it is Shabbos which holds the key to the Jewish future.

The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) reports: "If all Jews were to observe just two Shabbos' properly, the final redemption would occur."

Why is it necessary to observe two Shabbos' properly? Why isn't one enough?

There is a world of difference between the first Shabbos and the second. A Shabbos observed in isolation would surely be spiritually uplifting, but this is not the type of Shabbos which would lead to redemption. More than a single day, Shabbos must "spill over" into the ensuing week, elevating all our actions and thoughts.

Shabbos is not the end of our week, rather it is the midpoint and source of energy. The second Shabbos, approached after a week so influenced, is completely different. It marks a spiritual apex, not a spiritual island. This is the type of Shabbos whose observance will bring about redemption. This is the Shabbos of a week, and a world, uplifted. (see Kedushas HaLevi, Ki Sisa 31:13)

And this is the great and permanent peace for which our people yearns.

At sundown this Friday, take a minute and try the following exercise: Clench your fists tight for 60 seconds. Then let go. That, my friends, is Shabbos.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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