Parashat Vayakhel: Shall we dance?

The Sabbath expresses both a period of perfect peace and our human role as co-creators, without whom the eternal Sabbath can never be realized.

Judaism 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judaism 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the foundations of Judaism - perhaps the most important biblical teaching - concerns the Sabbath day. At the very beginning of Genesis, immediately following the description of the world's creation, the Bible declares: "And the heavens and the earth and all their hosts were completed… And the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it He rested from all His creative activity which the Lord had created to do" (Genesis 2:1-3). The Sabbath comes up again - twice - in portions read these past weeks detailing the construction of the desert Sanctuary. After the two descriptive readings of Truma and Tetzaveh (concentrating on the Sanctuary furnishings and the priestly vestments to be worn during the Sanctuary services), the Sabbath comes as a kind of warning: "But my Sabbaths shall you observe because it is a sign between Me and between you for your generations that I am the Lord who makes you holy" (Exodus 31:13,14), adding the nuance that the Sabbath unites Israel with God in a special bond. Moreover, this surprising intrusion of the Sabbath amidst the details of the Sanctuary precedes the tragic tale of the Golden Calf. Then, in our portion of Vayakhel, the Sabbath enters once more as a conclusion to the Golden Calf episode and an introduction to the resumption of Sanctuary construction: "Six days shall you do your creative activity and the seventh day shall be for you holy, a Sabbath of Sabbaths unto the Lord; anyone who does creative activity on it shall die. You shall not burn a fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath" (Exodus 35:2, 3). Why the repetition, and what is the connection between the Sabbath, the Sanctuary and the Golden Calf? BEFORE I attempt to interpret these passages, I must ask a rather provocative question. Despite the Jewish calculation that we are presently in the 5768th year since the world was created, modern science maintains that the planet is billions of years old. This never posed a serious theological problem for me, since the Bible records that the sun and moon (the source for our 24-hour day) were created on the fourth day, which means that the Hebrew yom (day) when used for the days of Creation could not possibly refer to a 24-hour period. Indeed, the Midrash refers to the primordial days of creation as being God's Days, and notes that for God "1,000 years in your eyes are as the day of yesterday," as the psalmist says. But if that's the case, why does the Bible say Creation took a week? Why not picture six or seven indeterminate epochs? I believe the answer lies in the most vital commandment in the Bible, the central injunction: "And you shall walk in His ways." Following the sin of the Golden Calf and part and parcel with our atonement for it is the revelation of the Divine attributes, with the critical command of our sages, "just as God loves unconditionally, so must you; just as God is long-suffering and patient, so must you be." We must learn to clothe the transgressor just as God clothed Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit, and we must visit the sick just as God appeared to Abraham while the patriarch was recuperating from his circumcision. Most importantly, every one of our human, calendrical weeks must reflect the cycle of the primordial week; just as God was engaged in creative activity for six "days" and rested on the seventh, so must we be engaged in creative activity for six days and rest on the seventh. In effect, our very first commandment is to be creative; just as God's command to "let there be light" transformed the inchoate abyss, so must we go into dark corners and bring illumination. Now what does it mean that God rested from creation on the seventh day? It means that God created an incomplete and imperfect world, a world with darkness as well as light, chaos as well as order, evil as well as good (Isaiah 45:7) - a world which "God created for the human being to do," to complete. This is the meaning of the command to Moses and Israel: "Make for me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst." In effect God is saying "I made a world for you, albeit an imperfect one, and I want you to return the compliment, to recreate a world for Me, a world in which I will feel comfortable." Hence, God rested from Creation in order to leave room for human creativity. But herein lies an inherent danger: If human beings have the freedom and power to create, it follows that we also have the freedom and ability to destroy. In this context, the Shabbat offers a reminder of the correct path, a taste of a perfect world - the elusive Garden of Eden with its Tree of Life. Hence immediately after the command to construct the Sanctuary and its accoutrements comes the warning: "But My Sabbaths shall you observe." Remember to create, not to destroy; place the dream of Shabbat before your eyes, the vision of an era which is entirely Sabbath, the Messianic era. The Sanctuary must be the means to a world where God resides in every heart, mind and soul; the physical Sanctuary was never intended to be worshiped. Tragically, the nation failed and worshiped a Golden Calf; we lost sight of the Sabbath goal and our own destiny. And so, immediately after reading of this perverse idolatry, we today again receive the command of the Sabbath, but this time before the Sanctuary is actually erected. The world's sanctity must be our focus before - and not only after - we complete our buildings and amass our material possessions. On the Sabbath we dance with the Divine to the music of the Song of Songs. The Sabbath - and God's rest - expresses both a period of perfect peace and our human role as co-creators, without whom the eternal Sabbath can never be realized. After all, God our lover decided - when He rested from Creation on the Sabbath - that He will not dance alone! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.