Parshat VaYakhel — Pikuday Shabbat ha Chodesh
The opening words of our Torah reading this week are: “Moses convened the whole of the Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that Adonai 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.” (Exodus 35:1-2)
The Book of Exodus comes to a close this week with a double Torah portion, called VaYakhel-Pekudei, which deals with the actual building of a sacred space. This space is referred to in the Torah by three names — as the Ohel Moed, a tent of meeting; as a mikdash, a holy space; and as a mishkan, a dwelling place. These last five chapters of Torah are repetitive again giving the instructions for its building that we have been reading in the previous 10 chapters of Exodus.
Nehama Leibowitz, the great 20th-century teacher of Torah and an early active Zionist, points out in her book “Studies in Shemot” that both Don Isaac Abarbanel, a rabbi and communal leader in Spain in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from the country, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and social activist of the 20th century, commented on the redundancy of these descriptions of the very same act of building a sacred meeting place for God and the people Israel.
Both Heschel and Abarbanel point out that in both the “instruction manual’’ in (Exodus 25-31) that’s found before the narrative of the Golden Calf, which we read last week, and in the introduction to our double portion this Shabbat (Exodus 35:1-3), the texts have inserts regarding the observance of Shabbat that seem to have nothing to do with the building of this sanctuary, where biblical Israel is destined to seek relationship with the Divine.
While Abarbanel focuses upon the description of this sacred space and the redundancy of the two passages, Professor Leibowitz notes that Heschel, writing in the mid-20th century, in his prologue to “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,” warns us of the danger of prioritizing space over time. He affirms that Judaism directs us to be more concerned with time than space. For him, the insertion of the seemingly out-of-context commands to “observe Shabbat” in both narratives is derived from his concern that humanity’s focus upon conquering space, rather than seeking to make time sacred, is leading us to a more materialistic world.
He taught over and over again in his writings and in his social activism that “to have more, does not mean to be more” and called upon his readers and listeners to remember that “it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment, but rather, a moment that lends significance to a thing”
As I reread Heschel’s words in preparing this d’var Torah, I found myself contemplating the words of David Ben-Gurion, which have hung above my desk for the last 50 years:
“Time works for us or against us, depending upon how we use it!”
On this Shabbat, as we look around our Jewish world and see the rise of antisemitism worldwide and the political and social unrest in America and Israel, I find guidance and a challenge for us in the words of both Ben-Gurion and Heschel, Jewish leaders and thinkers of the mid 20th century who profoundly influenced my life.
How we use our time, individually and communally, matters. How we create community by recognizing that we must make space for each other, including the “other” with whom we disagree, is essential if we are to create an Ohel Moed, a tent of meeting, that is both a mikdash, a uniquely sacred space, and a true mishkan, a dwelling place where God and all God’s creations can dwell together in peace.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Ha Chodesh because it precedes the new moon of the month of Nisan. In addition to reading the double portion from the end of Exodus, which I have been discussing, we also read Exodus 12:1-20, the story of the actual Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites and the mixed multitude who leave Egypt and arrive 50 days later at Mount Sinai are the first generation of Jews who bind themselves to Torah. While all are spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpha, they were not all genetically connected.
According to the biblical calendar, the new moon of Nisan marks the beginning of the year. It was Rosh Hashanah for biblical Jews. According to the Mishna, it is one of four New Year days on the Jewish calendar. For me, this year, the month of Nisan is calling out to us to renew our commitment to freedom, to community, and to continuity. The text from Exodus 12:1-20 calls out to us explicitly, when it tells us that Passover, the celebration of liberation, was not to become a one-time event. Rather, “l’dorotaychem,” we are not only to observe Pesach but to teach its lessons and traditions to all future generations.
As we conclude the reading of a book of Torah, the custom is for everyone in the synagogue to rise and proclaim hazak hazak v’nitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! May we be strengthened! May this Passover be a time when all Jews liberate ourselves from the bondage of sinat chinam, the unjustifiable hatred of brothers whom we categorize as “others.” This is my prayer for each of us, for the people Israel everywhere, and for all humankind.