March 22, 2001
Body and Soul
Parashat Va'yakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)
Who celebrated the first Shabbat? God! Six days after the earth's creation, God both mandates and hallows the Sabbath day. (Genesis 2:3-4) In the same way the creation of the world concludes with the commandment to observe the Shabbat, so, too, does the construction of the mishkon (the portable tabernacle) conclude with the commandment to observe the Sabbath. Once the building of the mishkon was completed, Moses gathered his fellow Israelites to instruct them on the laws and spiritual importance of Shabbat adherence (Exodus 35:1). With that important lesson conveyed, this week's double Torah portion, Va'yakhel-Pekudei, begins.
As the venerated leader of the Jewish people, Moses knew the mishkon symbolized a remarkably successful community effort. He understood human nature, along with its insatiable need to transform and control the physical world. At the same time, he acknowledged the dangers inherent in overemphasizing the importance of material things. Above all, perhaps, Moses knew the mishkon would be without lasting effect unless it was infused with a religious significance beyond its original function.
The narrowly prescribed dimensions of the mishkon were literally enlarged to cosmic proportions once the Shabbat became associated with it. In fact, the legal boundaries of Shabbat observance and practice are, to this day, derived from the mishkon's construction -- 39 laws in all. Its physical presence was the embodiment of holy space. Combined with Shabbat, the mishkon was able to expand its imprint into the realm of holy time.
Metaphorically, the mishkon represented the convergence of two important yet competing concepts: the corporeal and the spiritual. Its architecture embraced both, much like human beings embody both earthly and heavenly drives. Though portable by design, the mishkon was God's permanent dwelling place on earth. Paradoxically, it was a physical place for a nonphysical or metaphysical God.
Like the mishkon, we need to embrace both the physical and spiritual sides of our lives. Within Judaism, the human body is not a prison to the soul. Body and soul complement each other, and both are necessary for our existence; together they attest to God's greatness. Ask yourself: Are we primarily human, in search of what it means to be spiritual, or are we primarily spiritual, in search of what it means to be human? In the inimitable style of rabbinic tradition, the answer to both those questions is yes.
In the creation story God teaches that physical work is good. But work is not the only reason we humans were created. That is why Shabbat is so vital to our tradition. That is why God is the first to celebrate Shabbat. For six days we work. On the seventh day we cease from work. Similarly with the mishkon, its construction was central to Jewish life during the time of the Bible. So central, in fact, there are more verses dedicated to the building of the mishkon than there is to the entire creation of the universe. But maintaining an impermanent physical structure is not the only reason our ancestors came into existence. Shabbat reminded them of that thousands of years ago. Thousands of years later it can do the same for us.
Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica.