Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Sabbath above sanctuary

The Sabbath day is a paradigm of a perfect world, a world dedicated to ethical and spiritual ennoblement.

"Six days shall your creative activity be done, and the seventh day shall be for you sacred, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to God..." (Exodus 35:2) What is the point of commanding us about the Sabbath after we have already received this commandment as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11)? Moreover, barely five chapters ago God exhorted Moses: "But you must observe My Sabbaths... as a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever..." (Ex. 31:12-17). Why this repetition? Furthermore, the past five portions of Exodus seem to have a rather peculiar order: The text begins with the command to build a sanctuary ("They shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst," Exodus 25:8), continues with the exhortation to keep the Sabbath (31:12-17), proceeds to describe the transgression of the Golden Calf and its aftermath (32-34), returns to the Sabbath (35:1-3) and then concludes by revising the sanctuary and describing the conclusion of its construction (35:4-40). A linear representation of these portions would be sanctuary - Shabbat - Golden Calf - Shabbat - sanctuary. How can we understand such a seemingly convoluted order? A second question which begs to be asked is the questionable role that Aaron plays in these events - specifically in the tragedy of the Golden Calf. He accedes to the nation's request to "make us an oracle who will walk before us because this Moses - the personage who brought us out of Egypt - we do not know what happened to him" (Exodus 32:1). Aaron tells them to remove their earrings, and with the gold uses a goldsmith's tool to make a mold of a calf, hearing the people cry out, "These are your oracles, Israel, who took you out from the land of Egypt." Aaron sees this and builds an altar, crying out that "there will be a festival to the Lord (YHVH) on the morrow" (2-5). Aaron built an idol; why is he not punished? Let me try to piece together what I believe the text is teaching us. Rashi, based on the midrash, tells us that the initial commandment to erect a sanctuary was given on the day after Yom Kippur, as part of the forgiveness (kappara) of Israel for their worship of the Golden Calf. The divine ideal was not for a central sanctuary - a magnificent temple - as a specific place of worship. Remember that after the revelation at Sinai the Almighty commands: "You shall not make with Me oracles of silver and oracles of gold; you shall not make these for yourselves. An altar of earth shall you make for Me, and sacrifice upon it your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings..." (Exodus 20:20,21). No, the Lord of Israel did not want or need a place of gold and silver for sacrifice and worship; after all, even the heavens could not contain the Lord. The Lord wishes to be "contained" only by the human heart and spirit, which must thereby be transformed. After all, God met with man by means of a spiritual experience which culminated in words to be internalized rather than via a vision of material things to be built and ornamented. However, once the Israelites began to fear that Moses had abandoned them, they panicked and fell back into their Egyptian mind-set, clamoring for another Moses; they desperately required someone or something to serve as a ladder to help them traverse the distance between a finite material world and an infinite spiritual deity. The Ramban explains, and archeology confirms, that the golden calf of Egypt was not in itself a god, but was rather the seat of Ra, the sun god, whom the Egyptians worshiped. This is what Aaron was willing to make for them; not a God substitute, but a Moses substitute. After all, Aaron cries out after producing the calf: "There will be a festival for the Lord (YHVH) tomorrow." And Aaron knew that by the morrow Moses would return. Tragically, the Israelites took the Moses substitute and made it their god. Aaron had tried to prevent this by making an altar for the calf, and by trying to explain that the gold was to be a sacrifice to the true God YHVH, whom they would worship the next day. But the people got up early the next morning, before Moses's arrival, and brought animal offerings to the calf itself, and not to YHVH. "They got up to revel, to orgy" - letzahek - which is the same word the Bible uses in describing the actions of Ishmael, rejected son of Abraham, which the midrash interprets as idolatry, murder and sexual immorality. The true God now understands the human need for some material object of inspiration to help bring people to an exalted level. He therefore commands, "they shall make for Me a sanctuary, but for the express purpose that through it I may dwell in their midst" - in their hearts, minds and spirits. The sanctuary must be a means, but its gold and silver dare not become a god alongside Me. To that end, after commanding the sanctuary (the sanctity of space and place, of object and building), God ordains the Sabbath day (the higher and truer sanctity of time, the genuine spiritual meeting between the hearts and souls of Israel with the heart and soul of the cosmos). The Sabbath day is a paradigm of a perfect world, a world dedicated to ethical and spiritual ennoblement - the very purpose of Israel's existence and mission. Hence our sages teach us that the sanctuary - and the construction of its magnificent furnishings - could not be worked on during the Sabbath; the sanctuary is a means, whereas the Sabbath is the end. And this is what the true God reveals to Moses in His second revelation at Sinai, the revelation of God's name, glory and ways: the Lord of love, the God of compassion and freely-given grace, of loving-kindness and of truth (Exodus 34:6,7). The ultimate place for God is not a temple but a human heart; the ultimate expression of God is not in gold and silver, but in the performance of actions born of compassion, loving-kindness and truth. Do not confuse the means with the end, the sanctuary with the Sabbath! Only then will the calendar become an eternal Sabbath, only then will the true God of love be able to dwell in our midst forever. Only then will the cosmos be transformed into a sanctuary of God and humans together in a Sabbath relationship of love and peace. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.