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Parashat Va-Yakhel

February 24, 2011

By Dr. Diane Sharon

In Parashat Va-Yakhel, Moses gathers the entire community of Israel together, and repeats to them all the plans for the holy Tabernacle that will be God’s dwelling place during the wilderness passage from Sinai to Canaan.

The community of Israel, newly chastened after the apostasy of the Molten Calf, newly rededicated to their faith in the God who brought them out of Egypt, is waiting to hear from Moses all that God has told him during his long absence on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. They are breathlessly wondering what new commands there will be, beyond the Ten Commandments and all of Mishpatim, the laws, that God has set forth in earlier chapters of Exodus. They expect something new, perhaps something surprising.

Instead, Moses begins by reminding the community of Israel that they may work six days, and on the seventh they must have a holy Sabbath of cessation that is holy to God; anyone who does any labor on that day merits death. This is not a new idea-keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, already given in Exodus 20:8-9. Even earlier, when the Israelites are given Manna to eat in the wilderness, they are told to gather a double portion on the sixth day to have for Shabbat, since no gathering is permitted on the seventh day (Exodus 16:22-30).

The unexpected repetition of the already-known admonition to keep the Shabbat is followed by commands that are brand new, explicitly detailed descriptions of God’s plans for the Tabernacle. This juxtaposition, through the hermeneutic device of semikhut parashiyot, “juxtaposition of passages,” suggests to the Rabbis a connection between the melakhot or labors involved in the building of the Tabernacle and the labors that are prohibited on the Sabbath. Mishna Shabbat 7:2 lists 39 main categories, or avot, of prohibited labor.

But something more is going on here than an expression of the practicalities of keeping Shabbat holy. Within this nuts-and-bolts narrative is hidden an abstract idea of enormous power and elegance. I am indebted to my teacher, Dr. Stephen A. Geller, for these insights.

On Shabbat, our recitation of the Kiddush, the sanctification of wine, connects the Sabbath to zekher lema`aseh bereshit, “the memory of the original creation of the universe.” This connection is explicit in Genesis 2:1-3, when God concludes the six days of creation by resting on the seventh day. But the description of the Divine Shabbat at the conclusion of creation is itself an expression of a deeper mystery.

At the beginning of creation, before God begins to create the Cosmos, there is darkness, watery deep, and the earth in chaos. The very first act of God in ordering the Cosmos is to create light (Genesis 1:3). Unlike God’s later actions in separating waters above from the waters below, and in creating dry land (Genesis 1:6-10), all the light is notgathered to one place, and all the darkness is not gathered to another place. Instead, light, this first element in the creation of the Cosmos, is alternated with darkness, first one, then the other: Vayikra Elohim la’or yom, velahoshekh kara laylah, vayehi erev vayehi voker yom ehad, “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day” (Genesis 1:5, JPS translation).

God’s first act in creating the universe is to create Time. Sacred Time brackets the creation of the Cosmos, first in God’s creation of light alternating with darkness, and finally in God’s resting on the seventh day of creation. In this account of our cosmic origins, Sacred Time precedes Sacred Space, and permeates everything else that is created.

In Parashat Va-Yakhel, the creation of the universe and the creation of the Tabernacle are explicitly connected: The Sabbath represents God’s resting in time, and the Tabernacle represents God’s resting in space. The Tabernacle is a microcosm of the universe, and a reminder to us of God’s creation. The pattern for this divine resting place brackets the apostasy of the Molten Calf, and the repetition of the template for the Tabernacle in Parashat Va-Yakhel represents a reconciliation between God and Israel, through the mediation of Moses, following Israel’s great breach of the Covenant.

More than this, the juxtaposition of Shabbat, the expression of Sacred Time, and the Tabernacle, an expression of Sacred Space, reminds us that, for Jews, Sacred Time precedes Sacred Space, an idea woven into the very structure of the universe as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis. The admonition to keep Shabbat precedes the template for the Tabernacle, as Sacred Time precedes Sacred Space in the creation of the Cosmos. Whether or not we are physically able to gather around the divine resting place, be it Tabernacle or Temple, we are always commanded to create the time in our own universe for Shabbat, acknowledging the Sacred Time that undergirds the Cosmos created by God.