Context is everything. Certainly, this must besaid concerning the curious opening of this week’s Torah portion. Forthe portion opens with a command that has been issued many timesbefore: the command to observe the seventh day as a day of rest.There is no new information here. The “newness” is all in thecontext, and the context is rarefied indeed.
Moses has gathered the people to share news ofhistorical importance with them. God has designed the precisedwelling place that He would like to have among His people, and Hedesires that it now be built. The exhilarating task of building themishkan, the mobile tabernacle that would serve as the forerunner ofthe great Temple in Jerusalem, is at hand. But before Moses revealsthis exciting challenge to the people, he first reiterates the ideaof Shabbat. Apparently, Shabbat has something important to say withinthe context of Temple-building. What is this importantmessage?
The Sages of old understood it this way: Moses’intention here is to subject the building of the mishkan to thedemands of Shabbat. Although Israel would invariably want to completethe mishkan with all due haste — understanding that the sooner theyfinished the project, the sooner the Divine Presence would become anintimate neighbor within their encampment — the people needed tounderstand that even the mishkan must give way to Shabbat.
When the desert sun set each Friday, all work –even the holy work of creating the House of God — had to absolutelycease. The people of Israel, then and forever, needed to understandclearly that our “cathedral in time” — as Rabbi Heschel famously andvividly termed Shabbat — is of greater value than any cathedral thatwe would ever build in the realm of space.
The reasons for this preference are at least two.One has to do with the projected course of Jewish history. Evenbefore we first entered the Promised Land, Moses had alreadyforewarned us that our possession of it was a highly contingentaffair, and that, invariably, over the course of our stay in the landwe would anger God to the point at which we would be made to sufferexile and dispersion. Everything that we would build in the land,including the Temple in Jerusalem, could one day be destroyed. If wewere to hold the sanctity of sacred place as being the ultimatesanctity, we would surely one day perish as a faith community. Onlythe firm conviction that the sanctity of sacred time was supremewould we survive. For sacred time, the Shabbat could come with us toall the lands of our dispersion. And, indeed, as Ahad Ha-am hasnoted, even more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has keptthe Jews.
The second reason relates not to history but toone of the most fundamental ideas within the Jewish value system:Shabbat must come before mishkan because Judaism teaches that weassess the goodness of our lives not based on the number of thingsthat we’ve managed to build or acquire, but based upon the beautifuland worthwhile times that we were blessed to have. Life is not aboutthe house we live in, but about the moments of love that weexperience within that house.
Every time I tie my child’s shoe or share a momentof quiet with my wife after we’ve finally managed to get the kids tosleep, I am conscious that this is the stuff of life’s deepest joy.Shabbat is the weekly guarantor of these kinds of moments of love andpersonal intimacy. How could any value, short of the value of humanlife itself, push Shabbat aside?
In the end, the Temple relies upon the value weplace on silver and copper and gold to achieve its grandeur in oureyes. What an unfortunate and misleading message would have been senthad God commanded us to continue with the work of building despitethe arrival of the holy time — despite the arrival of one of thelimited number of Shabbats that we will have in our lives.
“Don’t worry,” Shabbat says to us. There willstill be plenty of time for building things next week. Spend todayconstructing your cathedral in time.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’naiDavid-Judea in Los Angeles.