The Book of Exodus concludes with a description of the assembly of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) constructed by the Israelites for use during their journey from Egypt to Israel.
The Mishkan is a curious construction. It is a sacred site for sacrifices to be brought by the entire people, but only the tribe of Levi and the Kohen family of Aaron are allowed access to the holy place (see Exod. 40:35). The materials for the construction, as well as the assembly itself (Exod. 35:10) are under the authority of the entire Israelite community. The sacrifices are under the authority of only one tribe.
The Torah as well as later Jewish tradition seek to balance the set-apart nature of the Levites with the importance of vesting ownership of the sanctuary in the entirety of Israelite people. The privilege of priesthood (meaning here “cultic officiation”) was circumscribed. It would not do for just anyone to mediate between the divine and the worldly. But there was something inherently unequal about this situation. Why should one person or tribe of people have priestly privilege?
As the religion of ancient Israel evolved into the Judaism of the early rabbis, there emerged a challenge to the idea that one attains religious leadership by being born into a priestly family (a man’s father had to be a Levi or a Kohen). While admittedly limited in its time to Jewish men, one could only earn the title of “rabbi” through learning, not through lineage. While not everyone could attain that level of learning, it was in principle a step closer toward democratizing the way one could attain leadership.
There is an even more universal message in this week’s Torah reading, which begins not at Exodus 35:4 (the rules for building the Mishkan), but at Exodus 35:1, as follows: “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has 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 the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”
These regulations regarding the Sabbath are addressed not to the tribe of Levi or the family of Aaron, but to the entirety of the community. Rather than being the prerogative of the few they are the obligation of all.
In fact, the 39 categories of melacha (activities prohibited on the Sabbath as work) are based on the various tasks and skills used in the construction of the Mishkan. Rabbinic tradition took the juxtaposition of the regulations for Shabbat with the laws of the Mishkan to define “a Sabbath of complete rest.”
The Sabbath represents the equality of all members of the Jewish community. The tribe of Levi, even to the High Priest and his family, is equally obligated with the poorest and most humble of the other tribes in its observance.
As the Mishkan was crafted from materials supplied by the entire community, so the Sabbath is shaped collectively. Where we bring peace, harmony, and cooperation to the Sabbath table and to the synagogue, we construct a sanctuary. Where we bring strife, anger, and competition to the Sabbath, we desecrate a sanctuary.
The conclusion of the Book of Exodus deals with the temporal and the eternal. The Mishkan, holy though it was, was a temporary device designed for a specific function. The Sabbath, inaugurated in the same period of history, became an eternal opportunity for holiness. The Sabbath remains a sanctuary for the Jewish people.