By Reb David
This week’s Torah portion (Vayakhel) narrates the building of the Mishkan, the Ten Commandments’ ornate container and physical indwelling place of the Divine Presence. The portion’s opening words, however, invite us into the Mishkan that is Shabbat.
For rebellious former slaves who had just defied God by building a Golden Calf, what could be more important than creating a truly fitting emblem of an infinite divinity? The sages wrote that our ancestors built a Mishkan not because it was the original Divine Plan, but because the Golden Calf episode showed that the people couldn’t yet handle transcendence without a physical symbol. The more profound our reality, the more we may need a tangible way to see, touch, feel and focus it. God transcends time and place, but we sanctify specific holidays and houses of worship. Love is profound, but a video chat can’t replace a hug. Memory of departed loved ones exists everywhere, but there is meaning in a matzevah (gravestone). Translating “there” transcendence into “here” immanence, focusing infinity into human finitude so we can feel it and live it here and now, is part of our spiritual path.
Equally important, of course, is remembering that our symbols and images are just that — symbols and images that are at best crude representatives of a reality too large, too grand and too loving for any symbol or image to represent it fully. In the wisdom of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zayde (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal, all our symbols and images are mere “pointers” – and we mustn’t confuse the pointer for the point.
That’s why it’s so important for this week’s portion, about building the Mishkan, to begin with not-building. At the start of nearly four Torah chapters of minute detail about the Mishkan‘s construction,
Moses convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does any work on [the sabbath] shall die. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (Ex. 35:1-3).
We’ve come far since those early days: honoring life long ago superseded this death penalty. (Instead, many read this mention of “death” to mean that one who works all seven days will feel dead inside, cut off from Shabbat holiness.) But Shabbat remains so essential, timeless, that we receive this reminder before recalling the Mishkan. Holy doing is vital, but the holy not-doing of Shabbat comes first.
If we look closer, we see that the holy not doing of Shabbat also is a doing. In a portion fully dedicated to building a Sanctuary for God, Shabbat is the first of “the things that God commanded [us] to do” (Ex. 35:1). We learn that Shabbat itself is a Sanctuary for God. As Heschel wrote in The Sabbath, Shabbat is a Mishkan, a “palace in time.” And in this Shabbat palace, holiness is also what we “do.” In Reb Zalman’s words, the Mishkan is the pointer, but transcendence is the point; our modern-day palace of Shabbat and our choices about Shabbat are pointers, but holy rest and re-ensoulment are the point.
So in our 21st century Shabbat palace, we must decide what will be our holy doings and not-doings of Shabbat, so they point us to the rest and re-ensoulment that are the essence of Shabbat. What will build the inner Mishkan of Shabbat? What will be its walls? its gold? its color? What will honor the spirit of Shabbat in our lives, families and communities? How do we “do” Shabbat so that we’ll feel not “dead” but most alive? How do we “do” Shabbat so that, in the words of a recent portion, God will meet us there?