Last week’s parsha, Parshat Vayakhel, continues to describe the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) which the Israelites built in the desert and would serve later as the prototype for the Temple in King Solomon’s reign. But I’d like to focus on a different aspect of the parsha, namely Shabbat. Before the Torah goes on to describe the vessels of the Tabernacle and its artisans, particularly Bezalel son of Uri who was filled with “divine spirit and wisdom” to build the Tabernacle, it says the following: (Exodus 35:1-3)
א) וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם
1) And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: ‘These are the words which the LORD has commanded, that you should do them.
ב) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת
2) Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work therein shall be put to death.
ג) לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת
3) You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’
The most commonly asked questions in this past week’s parsha are these: Why does the parsha begin with Shabbat? But also, why does Moses unite the entire Jewish People to proscribe these mitzvot? Why do the Jewish People need to hear these mitzvot as an entire community– with men, women and children together?
In my Talmud class this week, we were learning with our teacher Rabbi Arie Strikovsky a cryptic text which discusses Messianic times and some of the paradigmatic figures of Redemption. (see Tractate Sanhedrin 92b) In this section of Sanhedrin, the Talmud praises the biblical characters of Daniel, Mishael, Chananiya and Azariyah, who were exiled from Israel to Babylon and placed in the king’s courts with the hope that they would assimilate into Babylonian culture and forget their Jewish — especially monotheistic — roots. As any good Jewish story would have it, Daniel and his friends were able to withstand the temptations of assimilation and retained their belief in God, even though the Babylonian king (Nevuchanezzar) tried to kill them in a fiery furnace for rejecting idolatry (Daniel 3:1-30).
With this background information in mind, let us return to the text in Sanhedrin. The Talmud make references to a few verses from Isaiah (56:1-8) which focus on Messianic times and link them especially to Shabbat.
א) כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה: כִּי-קְרוֹבָה יְשׁוּעָתִי לָבוֹא, וְצִדְקָתִי לְהִגָּלוֹת
1) Thus said the LORD: Keep justice, and do righteousness; for My salvation is near to come, and My favour to be revealed.
ב) אַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יַעֲשֶׂה-זֹּאת, וּבֶן-אָדָם יַחֲזִיק בָּהּ–שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ, וְשֹׁמֵר יָדוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת כָּל-רָע
2) Happy is the man that do this, and the son of man that holds fast by it: that keep the sabbath from profaning it, and keep his hand from doing any evil.
ג) וְאַל-יֹאמַר בֶּן-הַנֵּכָר, הַנִּלְוָה אֶל-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, הַבְדֵּל יַבְדִּילַנִי יְהוָה, מֵעַל עַמּוֹ; וְאַל-יֹאמַר הַסָּרִיס, הֵן אֲנִי עֵץ יָבֵשׁ
3) Neither let the alien, that has joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying: ‘The LORD will surely separate me from His people’; neither let the eunuch say: ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’
ד) כִּי-כֹה אָמַר יְהוָה, לַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרוּ אֶת-שַׁבְּתוֹתַי, וּבָחֲרוּ, בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי; וּמַחֲזִיקִים, בִּבְרִיתִי
4) For thus said the LORD concerning the eunuchs that keep My sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant:
ה) וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי, יָד וָשֵׁם–טוֹב, מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת: שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן-לוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת
5) Even unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.
ו) וּבְנֵי הַנֵּכָר, הַנִּלְוִים עַל-יְהוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ, וּלְאַהֲבָה אֶת-שֵׁם יְהוָה, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים–כָּל-שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ, וּמַחֲזִיקִים בִּבְרִיתִי
6) Also the aliens, that join themselves to the LORD, to minister unto God, and to love the name of the LORD, to be God’s servants, every one that keeps the sabbath from profaning it, and holds fast by My covenant:
ז) וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי–עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים
7) Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
ח) נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, מְקַבֵּץ נִדְחֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: עוֹד אֲקַבֵּץ עָלָיו, לְנִקְבָּצָיו
8 ) Said the Lord GOD who gathers the dispersed of Israel: Yet I will gather others to him, beside those of him that are gathered.
As we read through these verses in class, I asked Rav Arie why Isaiah is linking his vision of a universal utopia includes Shabbat. Isn’t Shabbat a mitzvah that is particular to the Jewish People? And if so, is the end-goal of Redemption (or the Jewish People) to proselytize to the entire world and expect them to keep the Torah?! That seems counter-intuitive to me– not to mention totally uncomfortable and coercive.
Rav Arie explained that the reason why Shabbat is referenced here is because it is a time when we recognize God as the Master of the Universe and Creator of all that exists in the world. For Isaiah this is a utopian existence: one in which all inhabitants on earth acknowledge and support ethical monotheism and God as THE Creator. I think Rav Arie’s read of this passage is very true to the text and also our human experience. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a eunuch to convey the following: even if you (a non-Jewish person) feel that you are a ‘dry tree’ (without divine obligation like the Jewish People or without potential for spiritual betterment), you most certainly have a purpose and opportunities to make a name for God in the world. How?
“Keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant” (Isaiah 56:4)
In protecting and proclaiming God’s mission statement of “justice and righteousness”, you (the “eunuch” and/or “alien”) will ensure that Redemption will come. More than that, the “big idea” of Shabbat is meant to remind us when we keep Shabbat, we affirm this mission as God is the Creator of the Universe and has charged us to do good in the world.
“Happy is the man that does this, and the son of man that holds fast by it: that keeps the sabbath from profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:2)
With this reading of the text, we can begin to answer our initial questions about the parsha. Why did the Torah unite the entire Jewish People to recount the mitzvot of this parsha and particularly those of Shabbat? Why did the Torah command us to keep Shabbat in the midst of its discussion about the Tabernacle’s construction?
I’d like to humbly suggest that the Torah is acutely aware of the dangers of ritual and cultic worship of God. It is easy to get wrapped up in the religious-legal minutiae of ritual observance. I often catch myself falling into this trap, whether dealing with the Kashrut of my apartment, the latest time to daven (pray) in the afternoon or how to heat soup on Shabbat. And so, this week’s parsha reminds us that while the details of our observance can bring meaning and intention to our religious practice, it can also blind us from the ‘bigger’ ideals we are striving to uphold. Naturally, this message needs to be conveyed to the entire people so that the ideals behind Shabbat can be supported by the entire community. In other words, I could easily concentrate solely on questions of how to heat my soup on Shabbat or when it’s appropriate to daven; but the point of all of these personal acts is to elicit communal action. For example, my personal rest on Shabbat enables to empathize with my employees who work tirelessly all week. Individual petitions that I make in prayer must also include the welfare of the community, those who are sick and/or in need. In short, our individual ritual observance must bring us to communal social change!
I bless us all that we are able to internalize this message of Isaiah and of Parshat Vayakhel and elevate our Shabbat observance beyond its concrete expressions and let it drive us to the humanity in all, to do “justice and righteousness” in the world, so that God’s house will be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” and that the entire world will be motivated “to love the name of the LORD, to be God’s servants”.