Parashah Ponderings

Shabbat: Time to Curb Your Enthusiasm

Vayakhel / ויקהל
Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

This week in the Torah, the Israelites finally get around to building the Tabernacle. In Vayakhel, Moses gathers (in Hebrew vaykhel) the community and let’s the people know what has to be done. As soon as he is done speaking, the people get to work and start bringing their terumah, freewill donations of materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. By the end of the parashah, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Pact, and all the other furniture and vessels to be used by the priests are in place.

How Moses begins instructing the people is noteworthy:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35, 1-2).

Before Moses begins talking about the labor involved in building the Tabernacle, he lets the workers know that a day of rest lies ahead. Why wouldn’t Moses have given the instructions first and saved the promise of a day of rest for the end? After all, God had done just that when he revealed the instructions for the Tabernacle to Moses: God revealed the instructions and only afterward reminded Moses about the commandment to observe Shabbat.

The medieval commentators on the bible are bothered by this question as well. The preeminent commentator Rashi (1040-1105) answers the question by observing that Moses first gave the commandment about Shabbat so that the people would know that the building of the Tabernacle did not trump the Sabbath.  Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) later adds that God “has already forbidden them in the covenant to do any work on the Sabbath, but here God specifies the punishment for violating the commandment” lest the people should think that each violation of a mitzvah comes with the same punishment. In short, the sages teach us that Moses is making it clear to his followers that Shabbat is a bigger deal than even the construction of the Tabernacle and that the penalty for overlooking this reality is severe.

Given what happens when the people start to bring their offerings for the Tabernacle, I’d say Moses made a good decision. The people are so eager to contribute that Moses has to tell them: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6). As he begins his instructions the people of Israel, he thus anticipates their zeal. He imagines that the people will get so caught up in building the dwelling place for the Divine presence that they would likely work straight through the seventh day to get the job done if not warned ahead of time.

We should also recall that the construction of the Tabernacle begins immediately after Israel sins by building the Golden Calf and suffers God’s wrath as a result. It is entirely conceivable that Israel would now be so fearful of God that they would think building the Tabernacle – something God actually commands them to build, unlike the Golden Calf – would be more important than the Sabbath. Perhaps the fact that they brought a surplus of materials to the Tabernacle is a manifestation of this zeal.

I believe Moses has something else in mind as well when he begins his instructions with the commandment of Shabbat: reassuring the Israelites that labor post-Exodus is not going to be like labor pre-Exodus. As slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites experienced no respite from their backbreaking labors. The last thing Moses wanted is for the people to hear what needed to be done to build the Tabernacle and then have them exhibit a post-traumatic response that would have impeded them from fulfilling God’s command. By uttering the promise of Shabbat before giving the marching orders for the Tabernacle, Moses allays the fears of the Israelites that they are going to suffer now as they had suffered under Pharaoh

The “take away” for us from this week’s parashah is that by observing Shabbat, we are honoring God and celebrating the freedom we have to cease from our labors. Our sages believe that when we fail to observe the day of rest, we don’t actually experience a physical death but we do experience a spiritual death: by working straight through with no breaks, we lose sight of what is of ultimate importance and become detached from all that is truly valuable. If we fail to observe the Sabbath, we might as well still be in Egypt, where we were slaves, unable to escape to Sinai and grow closer to God and to those we love.

Note: I had previously posted this commentary on February 20, 2014 at

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