Parshat VaYakhel: Sanctifying Space and Time

“On six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord…” (Shemot 35:2).

The time has come to build the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, the place of meeting between the human and the Divine. Moshe gathers the entire nation to make his request for donations to build this sacred space. But before he does so, he opens with a brief but pointed warning about Shabbat: Do no work on Shabbat. Light no fires. It is a sacred time for God and requires absolute rest. 

And from there Moshe continues with the intricate plans for the building of the Mishkan by Betzalel and his team of craftsmen. But why the mention of Shabbat first? We have already mentioned the uniqueness of the seventh day numerous times before, including all the way back in the creation story and in the 10 Commandments. Why does Moshe open his speech to the nation now with a reminder about the sanctity of Shabbat?

In order to understand Moshe’s strange opening here in our parsha, let’s look back to Chapter 31 in last week’s parsha. There too the text outlines the construction of the Mishkan, as well as Betzazel’s appointment as the leader of the craftsmen. And in the same breath, God surprisingly changes the topic to Shabbat.

“Speak to the Israelite people and say: but you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have sanctified you,” (Shemot 31:13).

The word, ach, but, teaches us that Shabbat is juxtaposed to the building of the Mishkan. The Mishkan is of incredible significance. It is the place where God dwells amongst us. But as important as it is, the building of the Mishkan does not supersede Shabbat. 

To put it in different terms, sanctity in space does not subjugate sanctity in time.

The details involved in constructing the Mishkan, the model of sanctity of space, take up the majority of four different Torah portions in the Book of Shemot. From the materials that surround it to the utensils that fill it, to the clothes that are worn by those who serve in it, no detail is left out. In order for the Mishkan to work, so to speak, all the pieces must be in place. 

Think about your phone and all the different electronic components and lines of software code that work together in harmony to create these amazing communication devices; one small defect will render it worthless. The Mishkan, the “device” which will allow for communication and harmony between God and Israel, is no less technical, and must have all its components built exactly to specification. And so what could be more important than the construction of that device?

The answer: sanctity in time. In his work The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heshel waxes poetically about the importance of Shabbat in our day, and calls it “a palace in time.” 

Heschel writes, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord ” (The Sabbath pg. 3).

The gift of a sacred space where God dwells amongst us is critical. It is a space that we create for God. But there is another way to be with God: the realm of time. We don’t create it; it was created at the beginning of existence.  But it is available to us if we make the space for it. 

So as Moshe describes the endless details of the Mishkan and its utensils and the clothing of the Cohen, God is concerned that sanctity in space will overshadow sanctity in time. Shabbat, sanctity in time, must not be pushed aside for the Mishkan, sanctity in space.

Over the last two years I’ve certainly come to a deeper appreciation of sacred spaces, especially the synagogue and the beit midrash. But God also offers us a meeting place in time as well as space. The Hebrew word moed, which is used to describe the sacred times of Shabbat and the holidays, also implies meeting. It is a place in time where we meet the Divine. 

Do you find it easier to connect spiritually in a sacred space? Is it the space that creates the connection, or the time, or both?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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