D'var Torah, Vayakheil-Pekudei 5780/Sat 21st March 2019

by Cantor Tamara Wolfson

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

What makes this Shabbat different from all other Shabbatot? On all other Shabbatot, we are told to refrain from screen time. On this Shabbat, we depend heavily on our screens. On all other Shabbatot, we are encouraged to gather together, to not separate ourselves from the community. On this Shabbat, we are advised to keep our distance from one another and not to gather at our usual venues. On all other Shabbatot, we are encouraged to sing out, and sing together. On this Shabbat, we are still encouraged to sing out and sing together — but please make sure you’ve muted your microphone first.

We find ourselves in scary and unprecedented times. Over the last few months we have watched our world cave under the weight of a fast-moving, highly infectious virus that unfortunately doesn’t care about our routines, jobs, holidays, weddings, or A-levels. I know many of us have been painfully reminded of how quickly our plans can change.

But while so many things in our lives may have changed drastically, Shabbat hasn’t flinched. She greets us at the end of each week with the same comforting message: “Slow down, spend some time with me, and rest. Connect to something larger than yourself. Don’t think about work. Or, realistically: try really hard not to think about work. And enjoy this gift of 25 hours of sacred time.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, we finish the Book of Exodus with the building of the Tabernacle. This focus on the mishkan puts us right in the middle of this “world of creation” that Heschel writes about: a world of creative work, rather than the world of creation. But I recently came across a commentary that turns Heschel’s logic slightly on its head, and that got me thinking differently about the meaning of our work and our time.

Bemidbar Rabbah 12:13 draws some spot-on parallels between the Creation narrative in Genesis and the construction of the mishkan. Firstly, both the earth and the mishkan are referred to as tents. It is written for the 1st day of creation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… and it is also written that “God spreads out the heavens like a tent (Ps 104:2). 

About the Mishkan it is written, “you shall make coverings of goat’s hair for the tent of the tabernacle.”

It is written [for the 2nd day of creation], “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water” and about the mishkan it is written, “the curtain shall separate for you (between the holy and the holy of holies) (Ex 26:33).

For the 3rd day [of creation] Torah says, “let the water below the sky be gathered into one area (Gn.1:9)” and for the mishkan [it says], “And you shall make a copper lever and a copper stand for washing (Ex.30:18)”

On the fourth day [Torah says], “Let there by lights in the expanse of the sky (Gn.1:14)” and for the Mishkan it says, “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold (Ex. 25:31).” 

For the 5th day it is written, “And the birds that fly above the earth… (Gn.1:20) and the mishkan says, “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above (Ex. 25:20). 

On the 6th day the human being was created. And in the mishkan [narrative it states] bring Aaron your brother (Ex. 28:1). 

On the 7th day [of creation] it is written, “the heavens and the earth and all their array were finished (Gn. 2:1)” and about the mishkan [it is written], “All the work of the mishkan was finished.” 

In the story of creation it is written “And God blessed [the 7th day]” and [regarding the mishkan] it is written “And Moses blessed them (Ex. 39:43).”

So what can we learn from these parallels between the building of the Tabernacle and the creation of the world? Firstly, we can lovingly argue a bit with Heschel. The creation of the world and the world of creation are perhaps not polar opposites, as Heschel claims, but rather they are one in the same. This frames the work we do in the world as a necessary extension of creation, just as holy and important as those original six days of Divine work.

And hopefully, this framing can gently remind us that we are often too judgmental towards our own work. Did I accomplish enough today? Did I meet enough of my objectives this week? What do I have to show for the work I’ve done this month? We second guess ourselves, we compare ourselves to everyone around us, and we lose sight of the value of our time and efforts. God never questioned the work of creating the world during those six days. God saw that the work was good, and blessed it. The Israelites never questioned the construction of the Tabernacle. When it was finished, Moses blessed them.

During these uncertain times, our relationships with our time and our work will inevitably change. As we shift our routines, we might even grieve the loss of a sense of normalcy. But I hope that in the midst of these difficult days, we can grasp on to Shabbat as an anchor in our lives that will help us to better appreciate our work and our time. And I hope that however you are spending your time and in whatever work you do, you can find compassion and blessing within it, and remember that underneath it all you are co-creating the world.