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We are not alone

Vayachel-Pekudei | Exodus 35:1-40:38

Vayachel-Pekudei describes how the Israelites carried out the instructions to make the Mishkan and its ritual objects, but it opens with these verses:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things 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.

Why is this here? Obviously, Shabbat is a central observance of Judaism, but this is the fifth time that the commandment not to work on Shabbat appears in Shemot. Perhaps the Torah repeats the commandment to make sure that the people really get it. After all, we take the idea of a weekly day — or two — of rest for granted, so it’s easy to forget just how radical the concept of Shabbat was.

In the ancient world, the rich and powerful might live lives of leisure supported by the work of their retainers and slaves, but the Torah prescribed a Shabbat on which everyone — rich and poor, free and slave — was to rest. The idea challenged the accepted wisdom of the world. 

As the Torah’s emphasis makes clear, Shabbat is a matter of supreme moral and spiritual importance. The Mekhilta, an early rabbinic commentary on Shemot, offers a practical explanation: “Since God commanded, ‘Make Me a sanctuary,’ I might think that He meant that the work should be done on both weekdays and Shabbat. Therefore the Torah says, ‘on six days work may be done’ — on weekdays, not on Shabbat.” Even work specifically commanded by God — even the holy work of building God’s sanctuary — is to stop for Shabbat. 

The rabbis teach something more. The biblical text tells us we may not work on Shabbat, but it doesn’t tell us what work is. Therefore, the rabbis use the account of the building of the Mishkan to define work by identifying 39 broad categories of labor — among them plowing, planting, harvesting, cooking, spinning, sewing, hunting, writing, building, and demolishing. 

However, in our parsha, only one prohibited activity is noted — kindling a fire. Why? Perhaps because in many places in the Torah, fire is a symbol for God — the burning bush, the pillar of fire in the wilderness, and, of course, the revelation at Sinai. When the Torah says you may not kindle a fire on Shabbat, it is a subtle hint that on this day, at least, remember that you are not God!

This awareness provides some much-needed humility, but the message is ultimately liberating. We can and must work to improve the world, but no one of us is responsible for the entire world. For six days, we are to focus on the work we have to do. And on Shabbat, we are reminded that we are not responsible for completing the work. We are God’s partners, and so, on Shabbat, we remember that we are not alone. 

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