26 Adar 5783
March 18, 2023
The double parasha describing the design, fashioning and construction of God’s sanctuary opens with a reiteration of the commandment to keep Shabbat, the Sabbath day:
Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that יהוה 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 יהוה; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Shemot/Exodus 35:1-3)
Why does God insert this directive here, as a transition from the episode of the golden calf to the detailed, technical descriptions of the MIshkan? Those descriptions pull the reader into Betzalel and Oholiav’s workspaces, as if we ourselves participate in constructing each piece of hardware and furniture for God’s sanctuary in the wilderness. The Torah could simply have introduced the work of building the sanctuary with the words, “And it happened after these events, that….”
I suggest that the directive to sanctify the Shabbat day as the prelude to the construction of the Mishkan is related to the building of the golden calf. Specifically, the placement of the verses about Shabbat appear here because the shards of the broken tablets of stone upon which the 10 commandments were engraved were placed inside the ark of the sanctuary along with the whole, second set of stones:
Rav Huna says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “The Ark of God, whereupon is called the Name, the name of the Lord of hosts that sits upon the cherubs” (II Samuel 6:2)? The phrase “the name, the name of the Lord” teaches that both the second tablets and the broken pieces of the first set of tablets were placed in the Ark. (Baba Batra 14b; see many other discussions of the broken tablets, such as Brachot 8b, Menachot 99a, Avot d’Rabbi Natan 44:12.)
Note that according to the rabbis, our ancestors preserved the broken shards of stone from Mt. Sinai and placed them in the holiest precinct of God’s sanctuary. This means that while the legacy and task of the Jewish people is to construct a sanctuary in the world, a space for the Creator to inhabit in the midst of humanity, that sanctuary contains brokenness within. The wholeness of the Mishkan and its sanctity are somehow incomplete without the shards of brokenness. Rav Shagar, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rabinowitz, z”l, saw those broken pieces as an assertion of human existential freedom, the opportunity and challenge of choosing to cultivate one’s spirit even alongside disbelief or doubt. That reflects one way of understanding the context of the golden calf that resulted in the shattering of the tablets.
I have an additional thought, inspired by the words of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Leiner:
Why does the Torah mention Shabbat just before the work on the Mishkan (Tabernacle)? With the building of the Mishkan, all the hearts of Israel were united without anyone feeling superior to his fellow. At first, everyone possessing a heart of understanding performed his particular work on the Mishkan, and it was shown to him that he had done wondrous work. Then afterwards, when they saw how all the disparate elements fit perfectly together, every curtain and board, and every element perfectly suited every other one as if it was the work of one person, they thus understood that all that they had done was only a product of their intellect out of the assistance of God to everyone who contributed to the Mishkan, producing afterwards the perfection of the structure. So how then could one feel superior? (Mei haShiloach on Exodus 35:1-5)
The work of the Mishkan was a lived experience that was greater than the sum of the parts. The Torah emphasizes the fashioning of each part with great detail. Yet, as the Ishbitzer describes, once the sanctuary was completed, every person was able to see that their contribution played an integral role. That moment of inspiration nourished each person’s heart, mind and neshama, soul, enabling people to overcome the feeling of self-aggrandizement and superiority (hitga’ut/התגאות). That feeling of oneness, of singularity of purpose, of profound meaning in living a life that furthers the holy work of Creation alongside the Creator, is the essence of Shabbat, claims Rabbi Leiner. That is why Shabbat opens the sections describing the construction of God’s sanctuary.
I would like to build on this interpretation. The work of building a sanctuary requires a vision for humanity. Only a vision of a project that will result in all participants being valued and in every task having ultimate worth will enable people to overcome their predisposition to feel superior and work only for their own territorial interests. Only when a group of people can work together to create a space that God would want to inhabit—a space that reflects and nourishes and sustains and values the diversities with which God created the world in the first place—can that group transcend the tribal instinct of excluding others who are perceived as less important, or less worthy, or less human. The construction of a sanctuary by our people is meant to be a microcosmic project for a sustained and nourished humanity, but the broken pieces lie at the center, in the holy ark. Humanity is capable of reverting to those moments of broken pieces, moments of fear, anger, rage, violence, menacity and avarice. Those broken pieces remain as an antidote to human arrogance, as a reminder to remain humble, to remember our darkest predispositions as humans. In today’s world, we would do well as a Jewish people to look at our own broken pieces.