Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, IsraelSix days shall your creative activity be done, and the seventh day shall be for you sacred, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to God….” (Exodus 35:2)

What is the point of repeating the command to observe the Sabbath, when we previously received this law as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11)?  Moreover, barely five chapters ago, we heard God exhorting Moses: “But you must observe My Sabbaths as a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever…” (Ex 31:12-17).  Why this repetition?

Also, the last five Biblical portions of the Book of Exodus seem to have a rather peculiar order: the Biblical text begins with the command to build a Sanctuary” (Ex 25:8), continues with the exhortation to keep the Sabbath (31:12-17), proceeds to delineate the transgression of the Golden Calf and its aftermath (32-34), returns to the Sabbath (35:1-3) and then back to the theme of the Sanctuary (ibid 35:4-40). So the arrangement of these five portions is: Sanctuary – Shabbat – Golden Calf – Shabbat – Sanctuary.  Why such a seemingly convoluted order?

A secondary question relates to the role that Aaron plays in the tragedy of the Golden Calf.  He accedes to the people’s request to “make us an oracle (elohim) who will walk before us because we do not know what happened to this Moses, the person who brought us out of Egypt”. (Exodus 32:1). He then tells them to remove their earrings, and from them he forms the Gold Calf. When Aaron hears the people cry out, “These are your oracles (Elohekha) Israel who took you out from the land of Egypt”, he builds an altar, crying out “there will be a festival to the Lord (Y-H-V-H) tomorrow” (ibid 2-5).  Why is Aaron not severely punished for building the Golden Calf?

Let me try to piece together what I believe the text is teaching us. Rashi, based upon the Midrash, tells us that the initial commandment to erect a Sanctuary was given by God on the day after Yom Kippur, as part of the forgiveness (kapparah) of Israel for their worship of the Golden Calf.  The Divine ideal was not for a magnificently fancy Temple as a specific place of worship for the Israelites.  After the Divine Revelation of the Decalogue, the Almighty commands, “You shall not make oracles (elohei) of silver and oracles of gold… An altar of earth shall you make for Me, and sacrifice upon it your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings…” (Exodus 20:20, 21)

The true Lord of Israel and the world did not want or need a place of gold and silver for sacrifice and worship; after all, even the heaven of heavens cannot contain the Lord who is omnipresent.  The Lord wishes to be contained in the human heart and spirit, which must be transformed and ennobled by the Divine ways and characteristics, words and commandments. After all, God reveals Himself to the Jewish people by means of a spiritual experience which culminates in words to be internalized rather than via a vision of objects and material things, to be built and ornamented.

However, when the Israelites fear that Moses has left them, they panic and reach back to their Egyptian psyche in search of a substitute, not necessarily for God – but rather for Moses. They desperately require someone or something which can serve as a ladder, a kind of pogo stick, to inspire them and help them traverse the distance between a material world and a spiritual deity.

The Ramban explains and archeology confirms that the gold calf of Egypt was not in itself a god, but rather the seat of the sun god Ra whom they worshipped.  This is what Aaron was willing to make for them. It was not a God substitute, but a Moses substitute. After all, Aaron cries out, after producing the Golden Calf, “There will be a festival for the Lord (Y-H-V-H) tomorrow.” And Aaron knows that by the morrow Moses will return.

Tragically, the Israelites take the material Moses substitute, meant to be merely a means to God, and make it their end-goal and the ultimate purpose of their existence. Aaron tries to prevent this by making an altar for the calf to express the fact that the gold is to be a sacrifice for the true God whom they will worship the next day. But, the people exchange the means for the end, got up early the next morning before Moses’ arrival, and bring animal offerings to the calf itself, and not to God. “They got up to revel, to orgy – “le’tzahek – which is the very word the Bible uses in describing the actions of Yishmael, antithesis of Yitzhak, rejected son of Abraham, which the Midrash interprets as idolatry, murder and sexual immorality.

God understands the human need for some material object of inspiration to help bring the Israelites to an exalted level of spirituality.  He therefore commands, “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me”, but for the express purpose that “through it I may dwell in their midst,” – in their hearts, minds and spirits; not in a material Sanctuary or Temple. The Sanctuary must be a means, the gold and silver may serve as the pogo stick – but they dare not become a god alongside of Me.

To that end, after commanding the Sanctuary, the sanctity of space and place, of object and building, God ordains the Israelites to observe the Sabbath day, the higher and truer sanctity of time, the genuine spiritual meeting place between the hearts and souls of Israel with the Divine. The Sabbath day is a paradigm, a model, of a perfect world of peace and harmony, a world dedicated to ethical and spiritual ennoblement, the very purpose of Israel’s existence and mission in the world. Hence our Sages teach us that the Sanctuary and the construction of its magnificent furnishings could not be worked and developed on the Sabbath day; the Sanctuary, and the sanctity of space-object, is a means, whereas the Sabbath, and the sanctity of time-spirit, is the end and the goal.

And this is what God reveals to Moses in His second Revelation at Sinai, the revelation of God’s Name, God’s glory and God’s ways: the Lord of love, the God of Compassion and Freely-Giving Grace, of Loving-kindness and of Truth (Exodus 34:6,7).

The ultimate place for God is not a Temple but a human heart; the ultimate expression of God is not in gold and silver, but in the internalization of the Divine characteristics, in the performance of actions which are borne of compassion and loving- kindness and truth. Do not confuse the means with the end, the Sanctuary with the Sabbath! Only then will the calendar become transformed into an eternal Sabbath, only then will the true God of love be able to dwell in our midst forever, only then will the cosmos be transformed into a true sanctuary of God and humans together in a Sabbath relationship of love and peace.

Shabbat Shalom


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