Before entering into extensive detail about the making of the Mishkan, this week’s parasha opens with the mitzvah of Shabbat:
And Moshe gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said unto them, these are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord… (Shemot 34:1-2)
The juxtaposition of the Mishkan and Shabbat occurs not only here but in Ki Tisa as well at the end of the commands to make the Mishkan. This juxtaposition indicates, minimally, that these are two parallel institutions, two loci of kedushah. The Mishkan represents kedushat makom, sanctity of space, while Shabbat represents kedushat zman, sanctity of time. The Rabbis take this further stating that the juxtaposition is meant to indicate that Shabbat cannot be violated for the making of the Mishkan. That is, sanctity of time trumps sanctity of space.
It is easy to understand why this is the case. Sanctity of time, Shabbat, precedes historically any sanctified space, the Land of Israel, the Temple Mount, or the Mishkan. It also directs one away from the physical. Time is not a physical entity, space is. Physicality and sanctity can sometimes be a dangerous mix; it could lead to idolatry. Shabbat’s lack of physicality make it truer to the infinite, non-physical God, the source of all that is holy in the world.
Here in Parashat Vayakhel the command of Shabbat precedes the Mishkan, while in Ki Tisa it followed the Mishkan. What is the reason for this change in order? Something happened between the commandment of Shabbat in Ki Tisa and the commandment of Shabbat in Vayakhel – the making of the Golden Calf.
Originally, God started with the command of the Mishkan. Shabbat comes as a warning at the end: “However, My Shabbats you shall keep” (31:13). It is true that Shabbat is more important, but the focus is on the Mishkan. “However”, akh, make sure to remember Shabbat; even as you build the Mishkan, do not violate Shabbat.
After the Golden Calf, the order of presentation had to be different. It became clear that the people could easily turn the physical into an idol. A reorientation was necessary. Only the prioritizing of Shabbat, not just in principle, but also in the mindset of the people, could ensure that the Mishkan would not itself become a Golden Calf. Start with Shabbat; start with the ultimate, abstract truth. Make sure that this foundation is well laid, that you have fully internalized that this kedusha is primary. Only then can you move on to building the Mishkan.
But notice what did not happen. The Torah did not, in response to the Golden Calf, retract the command of the Mishkan. Why not just eliminate the physical kedushah and be done with it? The answer is obvious: as people we are trapped in our physicality. It is not possible to sustain a life of kedushah if all we have is the abstract kedushah of Shabbat. We need physical kedushah; we need ritual mitzvot, we need a synagogue, we need a Temple. It is these that make our worship real; that give us the ability to connect to an infinite God.
Rambam tried to move beyond this. He claimed that sacrifices were only needed for a people who were influenced by pagan practice; that the ideal was to sit and contemplate God. But who can worship that way? We may not require sacrifices, but who can really feel connected to God through prayer without any physical component? We need a synagogue and the rituals of prayer. We need to create images in our minds which make God more like us; a Being we can relate to. We still need a Mishkan and we can have it, so long as we do not confuse it with God Godself. So long as the kedushah of Shabbat, of abstract, higher truth comes first.
Shabbat represents more than non-physicality; it represents inclusivity and unrestricted access. The Mishkan, in its very this-worldliness, was not equally accessible to all. It existed in one place, more accessible to those who lived closer, less so to those who lived farther. And not everyone had the same access. There was a hierarchy – Kohen, Levi, Yisrael – of who could enter, who could get closer to the Holy of Holies, to God’s glory as it manifested itself in the physical world. Even Kohanim could be excluded from access or from service if they were impure, if they were not properly clothed, or if they had physical blemishes.
Shabbat, in contrast, is accessible to all, regardless of place, of status, or of gender. This is underscored in the opening verse of the parasha: “And Moshe gathered all the congregation of the Children of Israel…” Mishkan is about hierarchy; Mishkan is for the few. Shabbat is about equality; Shabbat is for all.
Shabbat represents abstract kedushah, higher truth and unrestricted access. Mishkan represents concretized kedushah, symbolic truth and restricted access. These two kedushot exist in an ongoing dialectic where the kedushah signified by Shabbat must remain primary, but where it cannot exist without its physical translation into the signified by the Mishkan.
It is this dialectic that I believe is in play in so much of the contemporary debates that have been raging within our community. The call for greater inclusivity in areas of ritual and synagogue echoes the opening words of our parasha. It is a call for the kedushah of Shabbat, the kedushah that precedes the Mishkan. It is a call for a kedushah that is for allthe congregation of Israel; a kedushah of equality and inclusivity.
However, those who oppose changes in traditional ritual and roles are not motivated by mean-spiritedness or a desire to exclude people. Their opposition is rooted in the second part of the parasha, in the importance of Mishkan. These existing structures and hierarchies serve as symbols to impart necessary religious values. While some people may be excluded as a result, it is these symbols that root us in our past, in our ancient traditions, in authenticity. From this point of view, to tear down these structures is to tear down the Mishkan. It is to tear down those symbols that anchor us – people who live in the real world and not the ideal one – in the past and connect us to the full weight and power of our tradition.
Is our current structure a Mishkan or is it possible that it has become more like a Golden Calf? Has it become so reified and concretized that it has become an end in itself, worshipped for its own sake, undermining higher kedushah?
Perhaps one way to know if this is the case is to see whether anything else is ever given any weight. If someone can only talk about maintaining traditional structures and guarding its borders without ever addressing the larger religious questions and concerns, then it is possible that these structures, for this person, no longer point to a higher truth. They may have become this person’s Golden Calf.
Those calling for more equality need to respect the need for the Mishkan. They do themselves a disservice if they think that one can exist in a world of Shabbat without the symbolic, rooted truths of the Mishkan. And those calling for maintaining the traditional forms must be vigilant that these forms do not supplant the greater religious truths. They must make sure that they are not turning the Mishkan into their Golden Calf.
Humility is the key. If each side can approach its own position with humility, if each side can appreciate the truths held by the other, we will be able to work towards a religious life that has full kedushah, a life rooted in the eternal truths of Shabbat and in the concrete truths of the Mishkan.