Exodus 35:1 – 38:21
After the Ten Plagues;
After the Exodus from Egypt;
After the parting of the sea, and the defeat of Pharaoh’s chariots;
After the Revelation at Sinai;
After the idolatry of the Golden Calf;
After the massacre of 3000 Israelite ring-leaders;
After the destruction of the first set of Tablets;
After Moses returns from the mountaintop with a second set of Tablets;
While the people of Israel are still camped in the Wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai, and after all of this, we begin this week’s Torah portion.
Vayak’heil is about building the mishkan, the holy sanctuary for God in the midst of the camp; and in a very real sense, it is a matter of life and death. Without God, the Israelites would be truly lost in the Wilderness, without access to food or water; with no tangible Promise for the future, and no structure (Torah) upon which to build our new nation. Without the mishkan, we would be alone and without God. Nothing could be more important than getting the mishkan built, and quickly. Indeed, the people are so exuberant in bringing the various donations required to build the mishkan that the actual builders are soon overwhelmed. Moses must intercede to say: ‘Enough already! No more donations please.’ I know of no other temple fundraiser where that happened.
Vayak’heil is about getting the job done. How odd then, that it begins with this:
“And Moses assembled all of the community of Israelites and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has charged to do: Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day there shall be holiness for you, an absolute sabbath for the Lord. Whosoever does a task on it shall be put to death …’” [Ex. 35:1-2]
Well, that’s a rather strong statement. This is not the first time Torah emphasizes Shabbat, but the context here is unique. After all that has happened, the Israelites are finally coming to grips with the precariousness of their ‘situation,’ not to mention the awe-inspiring power of God. As a result, and for the very first time, they are MOTIVATED. They need the mishkan, and they are willing to work overtime to make it happen.
Conventional wisdom says that we should leverage times of great motivation for maximum gain. After all, if the entire purpose of the mishkan is to bring the palpable presence of God into our community, then shouldn’t we work day and night, and then start taking a Sabbath afterwards?
The Torah says no – not even for this. There is no question that the task is surpassingly holy but allowing our zeal to lead us to violate the sabbath nevertheless invites death.
Here are two possibilities:
The first is that while in the long run, our future would indeed be bleak without God, there is no imminent danger which can only be averted by working on the sabbath. Building the mishkan will take a good amount of time, and while we might feel better if it were completed a few days earlier, we would not actually be better for it.
The second speaks to both the importance of the sabbath, and to our integrity. The mishkan is, by definition, a temporary structure. If we violate the values of Judaism while attempting to establish Judaism, then what are we really doing? And, if even God needs a day of rest, how much the more so do we?
The challenge of Vayak’heil may be ancient, but it could not be more current. We may feel that we can’t afford to take a day each week. There are so many pressures: work, activities, chores, and so on. How can we possibly keep up?
It turns out we can’t – at least not without Shabbat.
When I was a younger rabbi, I thought that I had to be directly involved in every activity of the synagogue and sit on every committee. I worked so hard, so consistently and for so long, that I eventually wound up in the hospital. I thank God for that wake-up call, and for the congregational intervention which followed, in which the lay leadership worked with me to reduce my workload to a more relaxed 70-hour week. However, I still had a lesson to learn. Not in the synagogue, but in a dojo, the karate school where my children took lessons. Whenever I would bring my kids the owner of the school would nudge me to take the adult class. I declined over and over, citing my lack of free time. Eventually, however, just to make the conversation go away, I gave in. What I learned over time was that taking a few hours a week to take care of my body not only improved my health, but gifted me with greater energy and focus – so that I was able to get more done and with greater quality in a 60 hour work week than I had even before I was cut back to 70.
A few hours of exercise a week did wonders for my physical health and mental clarity. Shabbat does the same for our spiritual health and vitality: it is exercise for our souls. We may feel as if other things are more pressing, but Torah assures us they are not. Even if we are trying to build a mishkan in the short term, we require a weekly Shabbat if we want to enjoy a longer term. To give up the sabbath is to kill our spirits, slowly but inexorably.
Although we speak about sabbath rest, the Shabbat is not about doing nothing. Rather, it is about exercising and refreshing our spirits. Just like our muscles atrophy if we don’t use them, so to our spiritual cores. Just as healthy bodies give us more energy, so too do healthy souls.
Vayak’heil reminds us to bring God into our lives with enthusiasm, and reminds us to prioritize our spiritual health by observing the Shabbat; it reminds us to take the long view, to recognize that the anxieties and worries which drive us to work harder are temporary, and to remember that we bring God into our communities not by building big buildings, but by living our values with integrity.
If you do not currently observe the Sabbath, or an ‘absolute Sabbath for the Lord,’ then start off small. Going from 0 to 100 in an exercise program won’t work, nor will it work here. Instead, start to exercise your spirit with a commitment to yourself: do one or two things every week to bring Shabbat into your life which you currently do not do. As you get stronger, you can slowly add more. Don’t take my word for it. Test it for yourself. See happens in your life over time as your spirit slowly grows. It is not for nothing that Ahad HaAm famously quipped: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras