Vayakhel-Pekuday: Shabbat of Social Distancing

A man and woman wear protective face masks and gloves as they cross Oxford Street in central London on March 17, 2020. - Britain on Tuesday, March 17, ramped up its response to the escalating coronavirus outbreak after the government imposed unprecedented peacetime measures prompted by scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)
A man and woman wear protective face masks and gloves as they cross Oxford Street in central London on March 17, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Generations to come will study the 2020 coronavirus outbreak as one of the most powerful experiences humanity has had. The coronavirus has taught us how much we need one another— and how much we threaten each other–all at the same time. Humans cannot exist without counting on each other, yet sometimes we can give others a virus that will ravage half of the world with its unstoppable spread. This is also the lesson of this week’s parasha: we all need each other so we can exist, yet we must maintain our individuality—and sometimes loneliness—at all costs.

“Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord…” (Shemot chapter 35) 

Moses gathers the entire people of Israel and tells them about the Shabbat, an intimately individualistic mitzvah, one that, unlike the festivals, does not require large gathers. We rest on our own. The dichotomy of individual and communal cannot be more apparent.

And then comes the ultimate expression of communal life: the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that brought all Jews together:

“and Moses spoke to the entire community of the children of Israel, saying: “This is the word that the Lord has commanded to say: ‘Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper;”

God does not want any individual to build a Tabernacle. Building a sanctuary for God on our own is in fact strictly forbidden under Jewish law. The Mishkan epitomizes our life as a community. Commentaries explain that this is the reason for the mandated half-shekel donation to the Mishkan being just a half—rather than a whole shekel, is to remind us none of us are complete without the other.

Then comes the deep connection—and disconnection—between the Mishkan and Shabbat. Rashi, citing the rabbis of the Mishnaic generation, writes:

“He [Moses] prefaced [the discussion of the details of] the work of the Mishkan with the warning to keep the Sabbath, denoting that it [i.e., the work of the Mishkan] does not supersede the Sabbath.” [from Mechilta]

 The Mishkan is holy. The Shabbat is holy. The Mishkan represents the Jewish coming together as a community; Shabbat represents us turning inwards as individuals. Both are sacred and necessary, yet one of them must take precedence: the Shabbat. We cannot allow our togetherness to trample our individuality. We cannot allow our worship of Hashem be exclusive to the public domain, in must come from within each and every one of us. 

Communal life and engagement is sacrosanct and the epicenter of Jewish life. And yet, we are reminded never to forget who we are as individuals. At the end of the day there is one most important person we will need to face: ourselves. The power of Shabbat is the power of personal spiritual integrity. There is nothing we can do as a community to replace that. 

The coronavirus has taught humanity how connected we all are. One individual in Wuhan, China, can wreak havoc and destruction on entire communities in South America. We are all connected. And yet, as many of us turn inwards for self-quarantine, containment, and social distancing, we also have Shabbat. As many Jews feel disconnected by the lack of ability to go to synagogue, have joint Shabbat meals, and the inability to be part of a large joyous Jewish community our Parsha teaches us the lesson of Shabbat: “the work of the Mishkan does not supersede the Sabbath”. Our communal life must be built on a strong ability to connect to God as individuals. 

Let us take the time we have to turn inwards and strengthen our inner spiritual life, our unique spiritual experience. Let us draw strength from what makes up our unique connection to Hashem so we emerge from this crisis, stronger, more inspired, resilient, and ready to connect. May everyone be blessed with a healthy, safe, and yes, also inspiring Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom! 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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