“Jews Sanctify Time, Not Space”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week, we read the double portions, Vayakel-Pekudei, and with these two portions we complete the Book of Shemot, Exodus. These two parashiot deal with the construction of the Tabernacle, whereas the previous three portions dealt with the plans. In these parashiot we read of the actual implementation of the plans, begin the construction of the Tabernacle, and read of the selection of the craftsman.

Parashat Vayakhel provides the details of the construction of the curtains and the covers, the planks and the partitions, the parochet and the curtain at the gate to the Tabernacle. This is followed by a description of the construction of the Tabernacle, the construction of the ark, the table of the showbread, the menorah, the altar of incense, the sink, and the courtyard construction.

In parashat Pekudei there is a precise record, an exact accounting, of all the materials used in the construction. Even the great Moses was not to be taken on his own word, and had to account for every single piece of gold, silver, and copper that was brought. The parasha continues with the designing and sewing of the vestments, the garments for the Kohanim, the priests. Parashat Pekudei concludes with the actual setting up of the Tabernacle and the spectacle of G-d’s glory filling the Tabernacle.

Unexpectedly, right in the middle of the plans and construction of the Tabernacle, the Torah in Exodus 35:1 tells us: “Aila ha’d’varim asher tzee’va Hashem la’ah’sot otam,” these are the things that G-d commanded you to do. “Shay’shet yamim tay’ah’seh m’lacha,” six days shall you do your labor, “oo’va’yom hash’vee’ee,” but on the seventh day, “yee’hee’yeh la’chem kodesh,” it should be a day of sanctity, “Shabbat Shabbaton la’Hashem,” it shall be an ultimate Sabbath to G-d. As we would say in Yiddish: In miten drinen, all of a sudden, there’s an exhortation for the Sabbath! Why?

We might think that the Tabernacle, which is the structure in which G-d’s Divine presence was to dwell, might take precedence over Shabbat, but Rashi tells us very, very clearly: Hikdim lahem az’harat Shabbat l’tzee’vui m’lechet ha’mishkan, G-d precedes the building of the Tabernacle with the warning for the Sabbath, to tell us, sheh’ay’no do’cheh et ha’Shabbat, that the building of this prestigious building does not take precedence over Shabbat. On Shabbat everything stops, even the building of G-d’s house.

It’s quite unusual that it should be this way, but, basically, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people sanctify time, not space. If you lose or forfeit space, land, earth, etc., it can often be recovered. Sometimes it is replaced with a better, and an even more beautiful parcel. But once time passes, it can never be recovered. Time is truly sanctified. The Sabbath is a very, very special day.

Allow me to explain: Recorded in Exodus 20:8-11, in the Ten Commandments, is the concept of rest. The Torah tells us that the reason for observing the Sabbath is that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

A very fascinating book was written in the late 1800’s by Frederick Engels, who collaborated with Karl Marx on The Communist Manifesto, called the Dialectics of Nature. Engels presents a very simple yet beautiful theory: that everything in nature that breathes or moves has a thesis and an antithesis, an active and a passive stage. A flower blooms and a flower dies, the sun rises, the sun sets, the moon waxes, the moon wanes, the tide goes in, the tide goes out, the heart beats and the heart rests, a living creature inhales and exhales. Virtually everything that breathes or moves has to have these active and passive stages, which are built into the world’s design. We human beings, as creatures of nature, have built into our daily lives the active and passive stages as well. We need to rest, we need to sleep at night, our eyes open-–our eyes close. But beyond the daily rest, the human being requires a collective day of rest–that’s the Sabbath. It too is an inviolate law of nature, at least for humans.

Why do humans require this collective day of rest? A very interesting theory has been propounded by a contemporary rabbi that relates the concept of a day of rest to the building of the Tabernacle. After all, the building of the Tabernacle was an attempt to build the ultimate structure, the most perfect dwelling place for the presence of G-d. The Rabbi maintains that the primary source of “creativity” is, surprisingly, FRUSTRATION. What does this mean? If the horse and buggy go too slowly, we’re frustrated. This “frustration” leads to the creation of the internal combustion engine, the car, the bullet train, and the jet plane. Creativity is, in effect, a result of frustration.

Six days we labor, six days we’re obsessed with creativity. At the end of those six days, we’re left with a lot of creative, constructive work that we’ve done. But at the same time, because of the creativity, we’ve experienced a great deal of frustration. That negative “gook” collects in our bodies, in our souls, in our very essence. We have to get rid of it by having the Sabbath. Consequently, for Jews the definition of “work” is based on the 39 creative labors that were involved in the building of the perfect structure, the Tabernacle: weaving, planting, tanning, making fire and carrying. These are the labors that leave us with the sense of frustration.

There’s also an added benefit to the Sabbath, and that is that in our day and age, where there is so much emphasis on communication, people barely communicate! Despite the advances in technology, radio programs, T.V., satellite dishes, internet, cable television, cellular phones, the truth of the matter is that there’s significantly less communication today than ever before. The average parent speaks to their child no more than 12 minutes a day, while the average family watches 49 hours of television a week! I live across the street from Riverside Park in New York city, and I’ve noticed that there are two types of lovers who stroll in the park. Almost all the couples are plugged into a Walkman. If they’re truly in love, then they are plugged into the same Walkman and listen to the same program. If they’re not very much in love, they have separate Walkmen. It’s absurd! We don’t communicate! The Sabbath provides intimacy, intimacy without cellular phones, without the internet, without an answering machine. It’s an attempt to go back to a primordial state, to be able to communicate with one another in the most basic manner, face to face, eye to eye, word to word, without artificial interruption.

And that’s why the Torah speaks of the Sabbath as expressing both basic ideas: natural rest and freedom. Creativity ceases on the Sabbath day and we rest. But Shabbat, as the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 state, is also a liberation from slavery. And that’s, perhaps, why the verse in the opening of our portion Vayakhel, Exodus 35:2, concludes, “kol ha’oseh voh m’lacha yu’mat,” anyone who does this type of creative labor on the Sabbath shall surely die. No one is going to stone you. But, if you fail to benefit from that great island of tranquility, that oasis in time, the 25 hours of Sabbath, you’re killing yourself, you’re missing out on one of the most meaningful treasures that G-d has given the world.

Shabbat teaches us that “You can’t have quality time unless you have quantity time.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to invite all our listeners and readers to call 1(888) SHABBAT, and to sign up for “Shabbat Across America,” which will take place, with G-d’s help, this coming Friday night, March 23, 2001. We expect over 70,000 participants throughout North America. So call 1(888) SHABBAT, and sign up for a taste of Shabbat, a taste of the world to come.

May you be blessed.