Parshat Vayakhel starts directly after Moshe descends from Har Sinai the second time upon successfully gaining G-d’s forgiveness on behalf of the nation for the sin of the golden calf. Moshe gathers all of the Israelites to relay the instructions given by G-d regarding building the Mishkan and the vessels. As a preamble, he reviews the commandment to observe the Shabbat. Why commence with the mitzvah of Shabbat when he could’ve started with any number of mitzvot or gone directly into the laws of the Mishkan? Chazal explain that Shabbat is mentioned in connection to the Mishkan to teach us that despite the holiness of the Mishkan, it’s construction may not be done on Shabbat.
In addition, the sages teach us that the Shabbat serves as a means to repair the damage which was done through the sin of the golden calf. The Gemara on Shabbat 118b states that even if a person sinned to the point of worshipping idols, he will be forgiven if he keeps Shabbat. How does Shabbat rectify this grievous sin?
By understanding the reasoning behind the sin of the golden calf and the purpose of Shabbat we can gain insight as to how this rectification is effected.
What was the sin of the golden calf?
The Jewish Nation perceived that Moshe delayed in descending Har Sinai so they turned to Aharon and demanded that he make “gods to lead the way for them (32:1).” This request seems absurd after just having achieved great spiritual heights at Har Sinai. Upon close investigation, though, it is apparent that the people had already exhibited feelings and behavior that foreshadowed such a fall when they heard the ten commandments directly from G-d. The experience overwhelmed them. They couldn’t handle the direct communication with Hashem so they requested of Moshe to be an intermediary between them and G-d. Perhaps this was the reason Moshe had to ascend Har Sinai to get the law and the tablets as opposed to the entire nation receiving it directly. In the failure to directly communicate with G-d they lost the opportunity to optimize their relationship with Him. Then, while waiting for Moshe, they grew impatient and took a further step backward by requesting another intermediary which resulted in the sin of the golden calf. The last time they saw Moshe, he had disappeared into a cloud that lasted 6 days, after which on the 7th, he ascended the mountain for an additional 40 days. They couldn’t conceive how a mortal could exist without food or drink for so long. Furthermore, he was conversing with the Almighty, an experience they could not tolerate for even a few moments at the revelation at Har Sinai. They said, “the man that brought us out of Egypt we don’t know what became of him”. He was no longer the same “man” who led them out of Egypt. They must have believed that either he died or morphed into an angelic like figure which they could not relate to and so was born the golden calf.
What is the purpose of Shabbat?
G-d is referred to as both “Elokim” and “Hashem”. “Elokim” represents the aspect of G-d that created nature, the One we relate to by means of the tangible predictable world, whereas “Hashem” refers to the One who supersedes nature and can sustain the world without work, by His presence alone. On Shabbat, we celebrate both aspects of G-d. Pharaoh was able to accept the concept of an “Elokim”, a G-d that exists within nature. When it came to “Hashem”, the interactive, present G-d, the one who can intervene and change the natural order, Pharaoh says, “I don’t know Hashem”. He couldn’t accept a G-d that interacts in our everyday world. This was the prevailing attitude in Egyptian culture which seeped into the consciousness of the Jews, hinted to in 32:25 when Moshe said that the nation is “paruah”, alluding to Pharaoh’s belief which penetrated the hearts of the people causing them ultimately to sin. Perhaps that is why G-d performed many miracles to prove that He can and will manipulate nature. On Shabbat, we refrain from doing work to prove our faith and reliance on Hashem, not just as The Creator of nature, but as the One who can interact with us here, in time and space, on earth, as He did when we left Egypt. We spend Shabbat engaged in the direct relationship which we abandoned at Har Sinai. Shabbat is the time and the Mishkan is the place to forge the connection which was spurned at the foot of the mountain. It is for this reason that Shabbat and then the laws of the Mishkan are enumerated in front of the entire nation after the sin of the golden calf.
Furthermore, Moshe commands us to keep Shabbat before giving us the instructions on how to build the Mishkan because we can’t have a successful Mishkan unless we have a good relationship with G-d. We bond with Hashem on Shabbat and cultivate that relationship into a committed marriage, so to speak. It is necessary to have this strong foundation before we build a home for our Beloved.