Vayakhel: The limits of creation

This week’s parashah opens with an odd juxtaposition. Just before explaining to the Israelites how the Mishkan is to be constructed, Moshe pauses to exhort the people to sanctify the Shabbat:

Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Eternal commanded to do them (or, to make them).
Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Eternal; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death.
You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל משֶׁ֗ה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם:
שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַֽה׳ כָּל־הָֽעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת:
לֹֽא־תְבַֽעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת:

But why is the commandment of the Shabbat inserted here? The answer commonly given is that Moshe needs to warn the people that building the Mishkan—as important as it is—nevertheless does not over-ride the prohibition of work on Shabbat.

But this only puts off the question: we are told to sanctify the Shabbat by ceasing all creative work on that day. But why does sanctification take this particular form? We can imagine sanctifying the day through prayer and good works, but this is not what we are told to do. Instead, we are told to refrain from all creative labor. And specifically, we are told not to light fires on Shabbat.

What is the connection between creative work (malakhah) and sanctification of the Shabbat?

Perhaps there is a hint as to why the sanctification of Shabbat takes this form in what follows. After the commandment to observe Shabbat, the actual building of the Mishkan gets underway. Moshe instructs the people to bring the necessary materials: wood, finely woven cloth, copper, silver, and gold. The response is overwhelming: “Every man and woman whose heart inspired them to generosity to bring for all the work that the Lord had commanded to make, through Moshe, the children of Israel brought a gift for the Lord.”

In fact, the response was so generous that the artisans appointed to do the actual building had to call a halt to the donations!

They spoke to Moshe, saying: “The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the work (malakhah) which the Eternal had commanded to do.”
So Moses commanded, and they announced in the camp, saying: “Let no man or woman do any more work (malakhah) for the offering for the Holy.” So the people stopped bringing.
וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה׳ לַֽעֲשׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ:
וַיְצַ֣ו משֶׁ֗ה וַיַּֽעֲבִ֨ירוּ ק֥וֹל בַּמַּֽחֲנֶה֘ לֵאמֹר֒ אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אַל־יַֽעֲשׂוּ־ע֛וֹד מְלָאכָ֖ה לִתְרוּמַ֣ת הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וַיִּכָּלֵ֥א הָעָ֖ם מֵֽהָבִֽיא:

Note that the word used here for cessation and completion is from the root c-l-a, the same root as that used in Bereshit 2:1: “God completed (vayachal) the work that He had done”.

The ending of creation

In fact, the parallels between the completion of the Mishkan and the completion of creation are well known, and are too numerous to be a coincidence, as the following table makes clear:

Genesis Exodus
And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good. (1:31) Moshe saw all the skilled work and behold they had made it; as God had commanded it, so they had made it. (39:43)
The heavens and earth and all their array were completed. (2:1) All the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting was completed. (39:32)
God completed all the work that He had done. (2:2) Moshe completed the work. (40:33)
And God blessed… (2:3) And Moshe blessed… (39:43)
And sanctified it. (2:3) And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels. (40:9)

These parallels are commonly seen as implying that the mishkan is a microcosm of the universe. But perhaps we can see yet another layer of meaning here: these parallels highlight the fact that humans are partners with God in creating a new kind of society. While humans in a state of nature are guided by their appetites, humans in this new society will be guided by law. And while the law is given by God, it will be a law whose application will depend on human judges.

Thus, while God sanctifies the Shabbat of creation, the people of Israel are called upon to sanctify the vessels of the Mishkan and the Shabbat.

In building a mishkan for God to dwell among them, the Israelites are engaged in world building. What’s more, their work is meant to create an alternative “garden of Eden” in place of the one lost in our becoming human. While the lost garden is protected by khruvim with drawn swords, the gateway to communication with God in the Mishkan is guarded by khruvim with their wings stretched over the ark of the Covenant.

This is why the donations for the Mishkan must be freely given, with no hint of coercion. Only free people can be partners with God—”for the Israelites are My servants,” to which the Talmud adds: and not the servants of servants.

Tool-making and partnership

A further hint as the nature of this partnership can be found in the words used to describe the skills necessary for building the mishkan. Variations on the root ch-kh-m (wise, wisdom, wise of heart) occur repeatedly: “He filled [the artisans] with wisdom of heart, to make all manner of work in engraving and crafting…” and “All who were wise of heart, of those who carried out the workmanship…” Similar words also feature throughout the building of the Mishkan, including the root ch-sh-v, which means thought or artistry.

It is clear that the work of creating the Mishkan is more than mere labor; it is deliberate, well-thought-out, creative work—the kind of work that leaves the world a changed place. Such work is termed in Hebrew “melakhah”—purposive, deliberate creative work—the sort of work which is almost unique to human beings.[1] And so we find fire singled out as symbolic of this uniquely human activity: “you shall not kindle fire in your dwelling places on Shabbat”.

It is no coincidence that such uniquely human activities are prohibited on Shabbat. On this one day, we imitate God in allowing space for the other. The naturalist Loren Eiseley tells the story of a “great atomic physicist” who, while out on a walk with a friend, came upon a little tortoise.

Overcome with pleasurable excitement, he took up the tortoise and started home, thinking to surprise his children with it. After a few steps he paused and surveyed the tortoise doubtfully.

“What’s the matter?” asked his friend.

Without responding, the great scientist slowly retraced his steps as precisely as possible, and gently set the turtle down upon the exact spot from which he had taken him up.

Then he turned solemnly to his friend. “it just struck me,” he said, “that perhaps, for one man, I have tampered enough with the universe.”

Eiseley points out that the scientist’s “I have tampered enough” was not a disparagement of science. Rather:

It was a final recognition that science is not enough for man. It is not the road back to the waiting Garden, for that road lies through the heart of man. Only when man has recognized this fact will science become what it was for Bacon, something to speak of as “touching upon hope.” Only then will man be truly human.

Indeed, this is the nature of Shabbat. It is  a day when we “stop tampering”, realizing that we are not the measure of all things, that our needs are not reason enough to alter the flow of the world. For one day each week, we re-enter the Garden. We sanctify the Shabbat by ceasing to bring donations, by ceasing to create. Just as God left off creating in order to allow room for life independent of Him, for this one day we cease our own creation and return the world to God’s hands.

And this is the final parallel between the Mishkan and Shabbat: while the Mishkan is a symbol of divine-human partnership in space, the Shabbat is the symbolism of divine-human partnership in time.

Notes:

[1] Contrast this extensive artifice with Aharon’s excuse to Moshe regarding the golden calf: “I tossed the gold in and out came this calf”—as if the golden idol was the work of a miracle, without human creativity or artifice. By contrast, the mishkan is all human artifice, though its form is a matter of divine decree. And this brings us to another key word in our parashah: k-p-r, or atonement. Might the entire project be an atonement for the sin of the golden calf? The text is ambiguous, but the associations remain.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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