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No Misunderstandings

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Hashem revealed the secret of a balanced life

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The momentum is going, and we’re full force in the middle of building the Mishkan. Why can’t we finish up before being interrupted for a reminder about Shabbos?


t seems as if the Torah in this week’s parshah, Ki Sisa, was concerned that the fourth of the Aseres Hadibros, which speaks of shemiras Shabbos, might not be properly understood. Because smack in the middle of “Operation Mishkan,” — encompassing the previous two parshiyos and the next two parshiyos — the narrative stops abruptly with a firm warning that seems to be a sudden change of topic.

At that point, Moshe and the people already have the plans in hand for the Mishkan, down to the most detailed specifications. Moshe had made an appeal for donations and volunteers, and they had responded with generosity and enthusiasm. The people are excited about the project and eager to get to work. And then, just when their adrenaline is pumping, Hashem issues the following statement:

“But keep My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations… And the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant” (Shemos 31:13–15). There is nothing new in this warning; we already know it from parshas Yisro, and it is forever engraved on the Luchos of stone. Bnei Yisrael were taught all the fine points of shemiras Shabbos at Har Sinai. In fact, we learn from the tradition passed down to Chazal that the mitzvah of Shabbos was given even earlier than that, right after the Splitting of the Sea at Marah, where the bitter water turned sweet and potable. That means Bnei Yisrael — aside from a few rebels who went out in search of mahn — were keeping Shabbos in pre-Mishkan days.

It’s the famous question posed by classic commentator Don Yitzchak Abarbanel: “So why did the Torah give this command here, in the middle of the commandments concerning the construction of the Mishkan?”

Indeed, the Torah was concerned that Bnei Yisrael might not have precisely grasped the deeper significance of Shabbos. They might have a slightly skewed perception of its significance, and that would be reflected specifically as they began constructing the Mishkan. And this is how the Abarbanel answers his own question:

“Since Hashem had commanded them to make the Mishkan, which stood for dveikus to Hashem and the immanence of his Shechinah among the people, it was possible that a person might think that this activity [of building the Mishkan] was weightier than any other commandment, and therefore Bnei Yisrael might think that Shabbos should be set aside for the sake of building the Mishkan. This is connected to the perception that doing an action is a stronger testimony to faith than refraining from action [i.e. doing no melachah], for action is tangible reality, whereas inaction is the absence of that reality…”

Seemingly, the people would be right to perceive things this way. The purpose of Shabbos is to instill belief in Hashem deep within and to serve as a testimony to Hashem as Creator and Sustainer, and that is similarly the purpose of the Mishkan. And therefore, according to the Abarbanel, the people might have reasoned that the Mishkan, at least while being built, was meant to take the place of Shabbos observance. Some might have decided that this great national project took precedence over everything else, even Shabbos, and all resources, physical and spiritual, and all days of the week, should have been devoted to this overriding mitzvah.

And since this is how people tend to think, the Torah steps in and says, build the Mishkan with all your fervor and dedication, but not on Shabbos!

But why? The Torah doesn’t offer any explicit reason why building the Mishkan does not take precedence over Shabbos. But their actions would clarify the meaning of Shabbos more than any explanation.

When Friday afternoon came during the building of the Mishkan and Bnei Yisrael ceased from all their construction activity, they discovered the secret of Shabbos. On those days of Shabbos, when work on Hashem’s dwelling place on earth, the center of their spiritual life, was set aside, every Jew, for all time, was freed from the totalitarianism of “the need of the hour,” or “for the sake of the nation,” and so on, which so many a time has swallowed up the individual and ground his identity to dust. And of course, every Jew also won freedom from his own desires and urges.

He learned that Shabbos is not merely a day of rest, not just “the Jewish Sunday.” This sharp, targeted warning, prohibiting the people in absolute terms from using the holy day of rest for the national aim that obligated them at that time, revealed Shabbos to them in its correct perspective as a day that was to be every Jew’s personal Mishkan in time, just as the Ohel Moed was their Mishkan in space. For it is in these two dimensions, time and space, that man moves and acts in his world.

The Torah’s reiteration here of the mitzvah of Shabbos is worded especially to serve as the antithesis to the idea that material achievement is the ultimate goal of life:

“Veshamru bnei Yisrael es haShabbos, la’asos es haShabbos…” Shabbos, the Torah teaches us, is also asiyah, it is also something that we “do,” no less than the activity of building the Mishkan, and in fact it is asiyah on an even higher level. Doing and making in the spatial realm results in an external creation, whereas in the realm of time it forms an internal creation — it creates the person and builds his soul.

Thus, by enforcing balance between dedication to the public good and a person’s responsibility to develop himself, Shabbos saved the individual from being swallowed up by the society. It’s no wonder that the generations who grew up on this concept of Shabbos saw it as “a taste of Olam Haba.” They knew just why it is called “a good gift,” a “chemdas hayamim,” and other terms of endearment.

It is interesting to see how various thinkers of our times who did not grow up in shomer Shabbos homes, have rediscovered Shabbos. Today’s consumer culture, which tries so hard to enslave and trample the individual, has actually been a catalyst in their yearning for the inner freedom that Shabbos offers.

Back in 1965, at the height of the Labor Party’s socialist dominance of Israeli society, Labor MK and Zionist scholar and writer Eliezer Livneh penned in Haaretz, “The technological age crushes the human soul. The race to speed everything up destroys the rhythm of emotional communication between man and his fellow, making it functional at best, but sparse in spiritual and emotional content…. The multitude of choices and sheer variety of ways to satisfy needs erode man’s inner peace. Modern advertising, including what is known as public relations, is meant to rob the ‘customers’ of their last remaining serenity and push them from one artificial craving to another. And so, communication with oneself is also destroyed, and man never comes to self-knowledge or self-understanding.

“This is why we need the Shabbat; it is vital to us if we mean to endure on this land. There is nothing more modern than the authentic Shabbat! Shabbat in its original form, in its spiritual sense, and in its psychological parameters, is extremely important to us. To us, the people of the twentieth century…

“Shabbat is the completion of creation. That is, it is on a completely different wavelength from the weekday, and it is necessary for sustaining life at its fullest…”

I’ve quoted Livneh before, because his words are representative of a mode of thought espoused by experts in many other fields who were driven by the crisis of modern Western culture to discover Shabbos as a means of redemption of the individual and of society.

In the Gemara (Shabbos 10b), we find, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to Moshe, ‘I have a good gift in my treasure-house, and Shabbos is its name, and I would like to give it to Yisrael — go and tell them.’ ”

Hashem revealed the secret of a balanced life to the Jewish People before they trapped themselves in a misconceived understanding of Shabbos. He gave them the gift of Shabbos just before they built the Mishkan, to prevent the distress that would come upon them if they misunderstood the message.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 749)


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