This month we have being reading the four Torah portions that describe to us the building of the Tabernacle in the desert.
The Torah portion of this week is called “Vayakhel”, which can be translated to – “and he assembled.” It begins by congregating the whole of the community of Israel, which is what the first word of the portion describes. “Moses assembled the whole Israelite community….” (Exod 35:1)
For what reason is the congregation assembled?
God and Moses have announcements to give to the people of Israel – the first is that six days are meant for work, and the seventh is sanctified to God. The second message is that this is the time to build the Tabernacle, the Temple. “These are the things the Lord has commanded you to do: For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of Sabbath rest to the Lord.” Moses said to the whole Israelite community, “This is what the Lord has commanded. … All who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded: the tabernacle. …” (Exodus 35:1-2, 4, 10-11)
Assuming the combination of these two messages are not coincidental, a question needs to be asked, why does the Torah bind these two messages together, the Sabbath and the Temple?
The answer is in the Hebrew word “to sanctify”, “lekadesh”. Sanctification in Hebrew means not only making it sacred, but especially making it different and separate.
Of all the space in the world, it is required to take a piece of space and sanctify it – to build a Sanctuary. Of all the time in the week, it is necessary to take one piece of time and sanctify it – this is the Sabbath.
These are two sacred elements, one is in space, the other is in time.
This relationship and kinship between these two elements of sanctity is repeated twice in the Torah. Once in this week’s Torah portion, and the other in the book of Leviticus (26:2), where it is said: “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my Sanctuary.”
To understand what these elements of sanctity refer to, let us first examine the sanctity of time. It is said: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. … Six days you shall labor … the seventh day is a Sabbath … You shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey … or the stranger … that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave. …” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
This means that on the Sabbath, the slaves and the cattle will rest and become like their lords. This is a day where the difference between the master and the slave are eliminated, and both become human beings. This is an equalizing Sabbath, where there are no more divisions based on class or occupation or birth.
This commandment applies to the owners, to the lords, to the wealthy and the proprietors. They should observe a day where all social distinctions are ignored. On that day, all are equal in peace and rest. The Lords are commanded to give up their ownership one day a week.
Secondly, let’s review the sanctity in space. In the Temple, there are levels of holiness. The courts can be accessed based on hierarchy – non-Jews, women, Israelites, Levites, priests – and to the last and most inner location, the holiest of holy, only the high priest can enter.
What this means is that while the sanctity of time (Shabbat) breaks down divisions between people, eliminating the observance of hierarchy between people, the sanctity of space creates even more stringent observance of class, divisions and hierarchy.
In four consecutive Torah portions, we are told to build the tabernacle with areas of increasing sanctity and more limited access. Then, suddenly, the Torah injects the idea of Shabbat and how it equalizes us all countering the premise of hierarchical sanctity in the tabernacle. By coupling these two ideas, the Torah presents a dilemma and challenges us to sort it out. We must develop our own understandings of sanctity of place and its hierarchy together with time, which puts us all on the same level and sets forth the idea that no person can be more sacred than another. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that despite all of our diversities, we are all equal in the sight of God.
Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, February 21 at 6:09 p.m., February 28 at 6:16 p.m., March 7 at 6:32 p.m., March 14 at 7:30 p.m., March 21 at 7:37 p.m. and March 28 at 7:43 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, a rabbi of The Temple – Adath Israel Brith Shalom (Reform), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.