Tom Fields-Meyer, February 22, 2014
I used to work in an office building where there was a security guard posted in the lobby, a man I’ll call Tony. It was what I’d call a medium-security office building, and you couldn’t get into the elevator in the lobby without having Tony wave his keycard to open the elevator door. So every morning on my way in, I’d see him and say, “Hi, how are you doing?” And he always responded the same way. If it was a Thursday, he’d say “Only one more day til the weekend!” Or if it was Wednesday, he’d say, “Hump day! Only two more days!” Sometimes I’d arrive first thing Monday and there was Tony with the same resigned grin: “Only four more days til Friday!”
I worked on the 18th floor, and I began spending my elevator rides speculating in my mind about two questions: First, what exactly was Tony doing all weekend? And second, how could I get myself invited?
Of course, it’s not just Tony. There’s a little of that in all of us. Maybe you’re in a meeting at work on Wednesday morning and you find yourself thinking: “I just can’t wait for Shabbat.” Or maybe you have that moment Thursday afternoon: You’re in traffic, cursing yourself for taking the 405 instead of the canyons, and you’re thinking, “I’m so ready for Shabbes.”
Parashat Vayakel offers some helpful perspective on those feelings. Almost all of the parasha is focused on the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert. Moshe is passing along to the Israelites God’s detailed instructions for constructing the tabernacle. But before that there’s a brief passage that raises a lot of questions.
Moses says “Eleh had’varim asher tziva Adonai la’asot otam.” “These are the things that God has commanded you to do.” So the Israelites are poised and ready, and here’s the first thing on the list Moshe says they have to do: Nothing. Don’t do anything. On the seventh day, have a Shabbat of complete rest.
Let’s say you’re hiring a handyman to do some work in your house. You put together a list: fix the light switch in the kitchen. Repair the leaky faucet. Take a look at that closet door in the bedroom. Oh, wait, I forgot the most important thing: Take a day off.
So this passage raises lots of questions for the m’forshim, the commentators. What’s this doing here? Why start this parasha by reminding the Israelites about Shabbat? After all, the Torah has already mentioned the commandment of Shabbat several times. It was one of the Ten Commandments. So why does the Torah need to mention it again here, right before the list of instructions for the tabernacle?
Rashi has an answer: This is here to let us know that Shabbat supersedes the work on the mishkan. And Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator, elaborated on that. He says, if this weren’t here, you would have thought that doing is more important than not doing. That “perfection lies in action – and doing something is more perfect than not doing anything.”
So this passage is here to let us know that resting on Shabbat is more important than building the tabernacle.
But what it doesn’t tell us is why? Why does Shabbat supersede the work on the mishkan?
The Torah doesn’t say.
But we can get some clues by looking at the laws developed much later relating to Shabbat — and those also have their basis in this very passage. When the text says what we are not to do work on Shabbat our parsha uses the term melacha, labor. It does not say exactly what melacha is. But since this comes immediately before the instructions for the mishkan, the tabernacle, the rabbis derive from that that what is forbidden on Shabbat are any of the labors associated with building the mishkan. So from this parsha, we derive the 39 melachot, the 39 forms of labor: plowing, grinding, weaving, cutting, lighting a fire, and so on.
But, again, why? Why these things?
Dr. David Kraemer, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, points out that the Mishna lists all of these activities without offering a rule or a guiding principle to explain what is prohibited and what is not. The list of 39 melachot (39 kinds of labor) is its own form of commentary, and he suggests that it’s up to us to make meaning of this list. It’s up to us to interpret what it means. And, more important, what it has to do with our lives.
If you look at the list and ask what kinds of things are included, you can see a pattern. The list breaks down into three categories: This is a list of things you need to do to prepare food, to make clothing, and to build shelter. Essentially, these actions are the most basic requirements for maintaining human life: food, clothing and shelter.