Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayakhel: An Exercise in Subtle Juxtaposition

There's really no good way to follow up The Brooklyn Boy's last post because it was so hella good, especially since I was at the NC Hillel Statewide where he first unearthed his penchant for rhymin' d'vars (and I was one of the enthusiastic minions; or was it minyans?). Well done, sir.

I'm not sure if you've ever read through this Parsha (Vayakhel; Exodus 35:1 - 38:20), but it's what I would call ... laborious. It starts off with Moses reminding the Jewish people, fresh off of the Golden Calf disaster, that God has commanded them to observe Shabbat or they will be put to death:
And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: 'These are the words which HaShem hath commanded, that ye should do them. Six day shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to HaShem; whosoever doeth any therein shall be put to death. Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)
Makes you wonder at which point in Jewish history they stopped putting people to death for not observing Shabbat ...

Then, suddenly, verse after verse for the next three chapters -- more than 100 verses total -- the Torah offers a step-by-step blueprint about how to build the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, the physical center for the ancient Jewish religion in the desert, all the way down to the details of the lengths and colors of the curtains, and the number of bars of acacia wood on each side. No one ever said the Torah read like a novel.

The stark juxtaposition of God's decree about the Jews observing Shabbat being paired with the description of how to build the Tabernacle is striking, and also intentional. If you read through the verses following the decree, it describes in detail the different tasks of how the Mishkan is to be built, and even who God thinks should build it. These tasks involve mundane activities like sewing, casting metals and cooking: all acts that involve the creation of something. And it's no small coincidence that these are the very acts that are forbidden on Shabbat.

The Tabernacle was built to give the Jewish people a physical "dwelling" place for God's presence. Centuries later, after the Israelites had conquered Canaan and established Jerusalem as their capital, the Mishkan was housed in the Temple, which would be the central place of ancient Jewish worship until its most recent destruction in 70 CE.

So here's the reason for the text's juxtaposition. During the workweek, the ancient Jews had a physical structure accompanying them in the desert to remind them of God's presence. Through the various "creative" activities described in the Parsha, they were given the task of actually building the Tabernacle, making those once-ordinary tasks holy.

Why then, on Shabbat, are those very same acts of creation forbidden? It's because on Shabbat, God rested from his creation of the Universe. Everything that it took to build God's desert house was halted on Shabbat in the Israelites' best effort to emulate God. We don't necessarily need to be around a structure that houses the Divine Presence because, on Shabbat, we are immersed in it. Different from the ancient sacrifices and rituals that could only be conducted near the Tabernacle or at the Temple in Jerusalem, Shabbat can be observed anywhere on Earth, and that's what makes it beautiful. Shabbat is the one time during the week where we as Jews can focus our spiritual energy and not create, but just be.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not going to be self-righteous here. I definitely create on Shabbat in the classical sense, as I'm sure many of us do. I'm a child of modern America, I work for a computer company and do weekend work sometimes, I play drums in two bands, and I love taking long Saturday morning drives.

Does this detract from my Shabbat experience? Maybe, if you're thinking solely on a traditionally Jewish level. I guess I don't need to do all of those things. But even if I stopped "creating" and unplugged, put the sticks down, and simply walked around the southern part of Heaven for a day, I don't think it would make a big difference for my personal experience. It's great to try every once in a while, and I have before. But for me, Shabbat is about the re-creation of the self, and working on bringing a sense of peace back to ourselves and to our broken world. And I say thank God for that.

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