Parashat Vayakhel – Pekudei: Supplying the stairs

Reading this week’s Torah portion reveals several different staircases connecting the Mishkan and Shabbat.

THE MISHKAN tent. (Wikimedia Commons) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE MISHKAN tent. (Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Commenting on one of his own lectures, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.”
We have all had the experience of making leaps in our own minds without making clear to others why we are moving from topic A to topic B. The Torah often moves from topic to topic and declines to supply the stairs. But to attentive readers it always contains the material to build them ourselves.
There is a perennial mystery about the linkage of the Tabernacle and Shabbat. Moses assembles the congregation and says, “These are the things which God has commanded you to do,” and then instructs them about prohibited labors on the Sabbath, which is of course about things one must not do (35:1-3). Moses then proceeds to instruct the Israelites concerning the building of the Tabernacle.
Why are the two subjects juxtaposed, and what is the relation between commands of action and inaction? How do we build these stairs?
Rashi’s explanation is that Shabbat is put first to indicate that the Tabernacle does not override Shabbat: The laws of what you may not do on Shabbat apply even with regard to the Tabernacle. That makes sense but is not sufficient, since in several other places, despite the legal precedence, the Tabernacle precedes Shabbat (Exodus 31:6-7, 11 & 13 and Ezekiel 23:38, for example).
A second explanation lines up the expressions used in making the Tabernacle and parallels them to the expressions used in creation. The numerous echoes and similarities remind us that the Tabernacle is a reflection of the Divine creation.Therefore Shabbat, the crown of creation and its culmination, should be juxtaposed to the Tabernacle, which recalls it.
Some also point out that since work ceased on the Tabernacle on Shabbat, it is the Tabernacle and construction on it that gives us our 39 forbidden Shabbat melachot (labors). “Melachot” does not really translate to “work.” Many things we think of as work are permitted on Shabbat (carrying books for example), and other things that do not seem like work are not permitted, such as tearing paper. The particular activities required to build the Tabernacle give us the template for Shabbat prohibitions.
This leads to a still deeper philosophical connection between the two. What, after all, is the purpose of the Tabernacle, and of sacrifice in general? Sacrifice seeks to restore some sort of imbalance in the world. That is not only the case with sacrifices in the Temple, but with the sacrifices in our lives.
When we sacrifice for another person, we are seeking to make good something that is awry or broken. One of the Temple sacrifices is called shelamim, the wholeness sacrifice, sometimes referred to as the peace offering. The building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) enabled the Israelites to correct those things in their lives that were shattered or unfulfilled, to become whole and to make peace.
Now consider the purpose of Shabbat. As a day of rest, it is intended to complete creation. It is a day of peace in which the frenzy and imbalance of our lives are restored. As with the sacrifices, Shabbat enables wholeness to take the place of brokenness, peace to replace strife.
Moreover, Shabbat is a day of sacrifice. In order to derive the benefits that Shabbat can bring, one must voluntarily renounce many things that we would otherwise enjoy. Only through sacrifice can one achieve rest, peace and wholeness.
Reading this week’s Torah portion reveals several different staircases connecting the Mishkan and Shabbat. The Mishkan is what we are able to offer to God; Shabbat is something that God has offered to us. Each facilitates the repair of relationship and the restoration of wholeness to a weary and fractured world.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, and author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.