Twice after the aseret hadibrot, the laws of shabbat, specifically regarding the prohibition of doing creative work, are mentioned; both are in context of the building of the mishkan: one inKi Tisa and the other in this week’s parsha. Both times commentators learn from the juxtaposition that while the building of the mishkan was important, nothing is more important than upholding the laws of shabbat; therefore, forever more, the melakhot that were performed in building the mishkan in the desert became the foundation for the actions prohibited on shabbat.
This exegesis and subsequent halakhik determination makes sense for the section found in Ki Tisa. There, the architects for the mishkan and all its vessels are enumerated and immediately afterwards the Torah says, ‘but, you must preserve My shabbat…anyone who performs works (‘melakhah’) on [the shabbat] will be cut off from among the nation’. And along with the repetition of the word ‘melakhah’ in the mishkan paragraph clearly matching up with the thrice-mentioned ‘melakhah’ in the following shabbat section, the intended connection the commentators make between the mishkan’s work and the prohibitions ofshabbat is blatantly recognized.
However, in this week’s parsha, none of those literary connecting hints are employed: a) themishkan paragraph comes after the laws of shabbat are mentioned; b) there is (therefore obviously) no ‘but’ mentioned to introduce the shabbat paragraph; and c) there is no mention of the word ‘melakhah’ in the entire mishkan description. In addition, the shabbatsection in Va’Yaqel specifically identifies a single prohibited melakhah: ‘do not kindle any firethroughout your settlements on the day of shabbat’. All these aspects, along with the general issue of why the Torah would need to repeat the same idea twice, demand the question: whydoes the Torah begin this week’s parsha with a three-verse section of the laws of shabbat?
To answer this question, we can not be disturbed by the differences between the two sections but rather embrace them. First we must understand the meaning of the observance of shabbat and the mishkan’s true function (the two topics we’re addressing in these sections). Observing shabbat is the nation’s affirmation of God’s overall authority over and continuous concern for His people. Just as the first shabbat attested to the fact that even though God actively created for six days, when He ceased on the seventh, the world nonetheless continued to exist because of the system that only He could establish and maintain, the nation’s emulation of God’s behavior on shabbat, therefore, expresses theirunderstanding of God’s integral role in the preservation of their lives. And the purpose of themishkan was to serve as a vehicle with which to establish a tangible presence for this awareness of God and His rule achieved ‘by’ shabbat. Next we must appreciate the context in which the beginning of this parsha finds itself. The egregious sin of the egel has transpired and subsequent forgiveness has been granted. Even with the introduction of the idea of themishkan into the consciousness of the nation, they nonetheless sinned; even withoutthe mishkan’s actual structure, they nonetheless received complete forgiveness! InVa’Yaqel, the Torah is removing the focus from the mishkan, the mere building which was toreflect the nation’s relationship with God, and placing it upon shabbat instead, the vehicle forattaining this relationship. The three differences listed above illustrate this point: the shabbatparagraph is now first, followed by a totally separated (with a parsha petuchah, no mention of the mishkan-esque term ‘melakhah’ and no connecting ‘but’) mishkan paragraph – themishkan is a separate idea only to be employed after a shabbat success is achieved. This is why they sinned even with the mishkan – they had yet to achieve the required appreciation of God; and this is why they were able to receive forgiveness even without the mishkan – because they achieved a stronger relationship with God through their repentance. The ‘shabbat lesson’ was the true definer of their destiny, not the mishkan structure.
Additionally, the shabbat paragraph this time around mentions only one prohibitedmelakhah (lighting fire – which serves to cook, heat and transform; therefore, although only a single action, it nonetheless serves as the symbol for all prohibited creative melakhah) to be observed specifically ‘in your settlements’, i.e. in each person’s private domain, purposefully ‘narrowing’ the laws of shabbat to allow for a greater focus on its essential purpose. Similarly, the introduction to the shabbat command is: “these are the things that God commanded [for you] to do”; and for the mishkan the Torah writes: “this is the thing that God commanded”, using the singular ’thing’ and omitting the phrase ‘to do’. By shabbat, while only oneprohibited action is subsequently enumerated, the observance of shabbat as a whole must be recognized as ‘things’ – fully encompassing a multitude of behaviors that a person must actively ‘do’ to fully comprehend God’s role in his life, i.e. the message of shabbat. However, the mishkan, although truly composed of many services and vessels, is labeled as ‘a thing’, whose focus for the person is not ‘to do’ but rather to comprehend and inculcate God’s characteristics and His role in a person’s life through the symbolic rituals, vessels and garments of the mishkan.
Rav Jonathan Bailey