It goes without saying that the events of this past week could scarcely have been imagined just a short while ago. Across centuries and throughout generations, the Jewish People have turned to the Torah and its weekly portion to find a sense of comfort and perspective during troubled times. Writing today from my home in Jerusalem, I wish health and safety to all of those affected and impacted by Covid-19 and “May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.”
This week’s Torah portion Parshat Vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the People of Israel, teaching them the Divine commandments of Shabbat and the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The verses state:
Moses…said to them: “These are the things that God commanded to be done. For six days work may be done, but the seventh should be holy for you, a day of complete rest to God…And Moses spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “This is the thing which God has commanded to say: Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it…( Shemot 35:1–5)
There is a common question that is asked concerning the sequence of the verses mentioned above: What is the connection between the commandment of Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan? Rashi, the Ramban and other classical biblical commentators all explain the juxtaposition of these two ideas. Rashi writes, “He [Moses] prefaced [the discussion of the details of] the work of the Mishkan with the warning to keep the Shabbat, denoting that it [i.e., the work of the Mishkan] does not supersede the Shabbat.” (Rashi, ad loc.) Put simply, while commanding the Jewish People to begin the building of the Mishkan, Moses was adding the important qualification that its construction does not take precedence over the commandment to celebrate and observe Shabbat. However, in addition to this legalistic/halachic explanation, there is also another insight raised by many contemporary Biblical scholars that spotlights the converging concepts of sanctuary and sanctity — one in space and the other in time.
The Mishkan (and later the Temple in Jerusalem) are the ultimate in terms of places of sanctity of space in Jewish tradition. The area in which the Temple rested has numerous laws and regulations as to who is allowed to enter its enclosures, how one should behave while traversing its courtyards, and specific ritual observances that must be performed there. The fundamental purpose and therefore the holiness of the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash was in that it served as the conduit for God’s presence to occupy a physical space in the world, and through this allowed humanity to experience closeness to Him.
Conversely, Shabbat represents that which is holy and sacred time. This category of holiness is intrinsically holy and was made so by the desire of God from the very beginning of time. As the verse in Genesis states: “And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it…” (Genesis 2:3) The holiness that is inherent in this day enables all who enter into it with the proper mindset the ability to meet the Divine. Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, one of the notable students of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the founder of the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva system, explains this idea as follows: “When the Shabbat arrives, the Jewish person is immediately sanctified, their very being turns into a sanctuary…the Shabbat is the sanctuary of the individual, the constant possibility of the appreciation of the Divine Presence…” (Ner LaMaor, pgs. 242–243.) When a person properly enters into Shabbat, when they set aside all of their worldly worries and turn inwards, their personality is immediately sanctified and they are therefore able to enter into a relationship with their Creator.
From the above, it becomes clear that these two models of sanctity share the same final goal: to enable each and every Jew to be able to appreciate and recognize the Divine Presence in their life. However, there is a striking difference between how these two models accomplish this goal. The Mishkan created the frame of mind necessary to appreciate the Divine through things that are external to the person experiencing them. Its impressive edifice and outward appearance, as well as the various laws and strictures associated with it, exist as separate and distinct to the person experiencing them. Shabbat, on the other hand, creates the same experience on an internal and personal level. Shabbat’s holiness is not relegated to a certain geographical location; there is nothing concrete that a person can point to that defines it.
This is the reason for the juxtaposition of the verses mentioned above. Specifically, regarding the construction of the Mishkan, which was to serve as the “meeting place” between God and the Jewish People, this lesson of Shabbat needed to be underscored. It is true that the Mishkan is a holy place; it is true that being in its courtyard created an experience where the Divine was more perceivable and approachable to the human eye. However, Shabbat comes to teach us that there is a deeper level of holiness, one that is not to be found in spatial grandeur but within man himself. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin articulately explains this idea as follows: “We dare not confuse the two…Religion may be inspired by temples of gold and silver, but true religion can only be found where its adherents are individuals expressing the Divine attributes of compassion, loving-kindness and truth. Humans must become the sanctuaries within whom the Divine dwells.” (Torah Lights: Shemot, pgs. 297–298.) Similarly, in Siach Shaul Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli explains:
The Mikdash is not meant to come to replace the holiness of the individual… This is the reason that the commandment of Shabbat is juxtaposed to that of the Mikdash, so that a person should realize that the essential component of the Mikdash is to be found in one’s home and in one’s heart. The purpose of the “they shall make Me a sanctuary” is so that “I will dwell in their midst” — in each and every person. Therefore, the concrete Mikdash cannot be built upon the destruction and trampling of the individual sanctuary — the building of the Temple does not push aside Shabbat. (Siach Shaul, pgs. 296–297.)
In the days ahead, with the synagogue doors closed and all communal activity paused. Within these challenging times, we are faced with a unique opportunity to actualize this message of Shabbat – to create a new personal sanctuary for ourselves, one to be found within our individual homes and hearts.