The Torah portion that we read this week (Vayakhel) features, in exacting detail, the building materials that were collected for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan, the ancient portable sanctuary that traveled with our ancestors through the desert. This much gold, that much silver, copper too, all used to create the humble ancestor of the Jerusalem Temple and its various pieces of sacred furniture.
In the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, when it became clear that the Israelites were struggling with the absence of a physical manifestation of God’s presence, nothing was more important than creating a tangible symbol of God’s immanence within the Israelite camp. The attention to detail portrayed in Parahshat Vayakhel attests to the seriousness of the endeavor as a whole, and to the desire to insure that the presence of the Shekhinah, God’s loving presence, would be robed in holiness.
The rabbis of the Midrash were quick to note, however, that this Torah portion opens not with the details of the building materials, its main subject line, but rather with a clear reiteration of the sacrosanct nature of the Shabbat, and the categorical prohibition against performing any work on the seventh day. The reason, they said, is hardly coincidence. Rather, it is intended to reinforce the fundamental truth that even the work of constructing the Mishkan, so crucial to the Israelite community, does not supersede the imperative of refraining from work on Shabbat. In fact, the paradigm of the core labors later prohibited on Shabbat according to rabbinic law would ultimately be rooted in those labors that were performed within the Mishkan on Shabbat once it was completed. Both as it was being built and once it was functional, the Mishkan was always intimately related to both the idea and reality of Shabbat.
In our own time, so far removed from the reality of our desert ancestors, Shabbat occupies no less exalted a place in the Jewish architecture of time and space. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel’s iconic characterization of the Sabbath as a “palace in time” expanded for us the idea of “sacred time,” the crucial counterpart to “sacred space” so central in Parashat Vayakhel. Indeed, as the medieval Biblical commentator Rashi suggested, the word “Kadosh,” or holy, means “set apart,” and that is exactly what Shabbat is supposed to be– set apart from the other days of the week as an island of tranquility amidst the storms that may rage on the normal workday.
Twenty-first century technology has presented an unprecedented challenge to Heschel’s “palace in time” idea with its ever-present sources of streaming information and communication. All of us who use smartphones (not to mention tablets, laptops and computers) are aware of the siren call of cellphones, e-mail, text messages and the like. We live with that technology all day, every day, and at night as well. On the one hand, it has had the liberating effect of freeing us from our offices and places of work, because no matter where we are, or what time of day it is, we are reachable in a variety of ways. On the other hand, it has enslaved us, because no matter where we are, or what time of day it is, we are reachable in a variety of ways.
I can only speak for myself, but I know it to be true that if, by chance, I leave my home or office without my iPhone, I feel not only incomplete, but also downright uncomfortable and borderline irresponsible. What if a child is texting, or a congregant needs me in an emergency, or there’s a crisis at work, or countless other possible circumstances that might require my intervention. And that’s only the professional and family component of it. Social media governs much of my connection to the “outside world”. Abandoning all use of it implies actually and consciously “disconnecting” from that “outside world.”
Maybe you read last year about young members of even the Orthodox world (where this would clearly be forbidden) who are now observing what they call “half-Shabbos,” because they can’t give up texting for twenty-five hours. If you don’t use the technology it might sound crazy, but what they are experiencing has transcended technology and become a form of psychological addiction to constant contact. That’s not to excuse it; simply to say that it flows naturally from the technology revolution that we are all living through.
It’s time for all of us, regardless of our level of observance, to heed the call of those who are advocating “letting go of our devices” for Shabbat: no e-mail, no texting, no cellphones, none of it. Vayakhel taught us long ago that even the work of the Mishkan had to stop for Shabbat, because nothing– absolutely nothing– is more important to our selves and to our souls than finding an island of peace and tranquility, a “palace in time.” What was true then is no less true now.
One final note… the only thing that is not only permitted, but actually obligates us to violate the strictures of peace and rest on Shabbat is pikuah nefesh– that which must be done to save a life. If there’s a chance to save a life, Shabbat and its rules are set aside.
Interesting, isn’t it? We can set aside even the rules of Shabbat to save a life. Why wouldn’t we set aside 25 hours of connectivity to save our souls!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.