Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Vayakhel-Pekudei: What Does it Mean to Observe Shabbat?

Shabbat Shalom! This Shabbat to close out the book of Exodus we have a double parshah composed of Vayakhel and Pekudei. Additionally, this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. One of the chukim, torah laws beyond human comprehension, concerns the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was used by the Cohanim in the Temple Service for ritual purification. Shabbat Parah takes place within the framework of the four parshiyot leading up to Passover. As we all know Passover is a holiday demanding lots of preparation.

However, the most important Jewish holiday is the one that occurs most frequently, Shabbat. As the sages say, “tadir kodim”, priority is equated with frequency. From this we understand that Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday. Asher Ginsberg, more commonly referred to as Ahad Ha’am, a poet and a Zionist is attributed as stating, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” In the opening verses of this week’s first parshah Vayakehel, Exodus 35:1-3, we are informed, “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

These opening verses depict a harsh understanding of Shabbat. To quote a movie from my childhood, The Princess Bride, “Death is on the line”. It does not have the inviting, spiritual, and familiar feeling that we often associate with Shabbat. When you close your eyes and think of Shabbat you think about getting together with family and friends, enjoying a delicious meal with challah and some blessings, etc. The remainder of parshah Vayakhel discusses the building of the tabernacle. The building is completed thanks to the generosity of the Israelites. God even instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that their donations will no longer be accepted due to the widespread support received. Have any of us ever heard of a successful building campaign to this degree? It’s every congregation’s dream to be able to turn away would-be donors and inform them, we have all the money we need! One day it is my dream that Shalom Home will be so overwhelmed by financial support that we too will close down our donation avenues. Until that dream is realized, Shalom Home is accepting and in need of donations.

How does Shalom Home understand Shabbat? As the future Rabbi of Shalom Home, our understanding of Shabbat is as a way to mark time. Specifically as a way to distinguish holy time from ordinary time. This is not in conflict with the more traditional rabbinic understanding of the Torah as encompassing the 39 melachot, or prohibitions. I will not provide the litany of prohibitions here, but suffice it to say each melachah is derived from the duties performed to establish the Tabernacle. As a Jewish community, we should not distinguish ourselves with the labels of conservative, orthodox, litvish, chasidish, reform, etc. While these labels can be of value, it is most important for us to proudly identify with the label shomer Shabbat, to guard/observe Shabbat. Sometimes this term, shomer Shabbat, is mistakenly considered to be reserved for Orthodox Jews. Shomer Shabbat is more fluid then refraining from the 39 prohibitions, including the prohibition referenced in the opening of parshah Vayakehel – of kindling a fire. Shomer Shabbat refers to what you do to mark the transition from the normal week to Shabbat. Maybe you go to services, maybe not. Perhaps you go to the park Shabbat afternoon with your family, or possibly you light the Shabbat candles Friday night, or get together with neighbors you don’t have an opportunity to catch up with during the week.

Observing Shabbat does not look the same in every Jewish household. The most important aspect to observing Shabbat is creating rituals in your home on Shabbat to distinguish it from the rest of the week. Shabbat should not be a holiday we observe out of fear. Rather, it is a holiday in which we recognize the creation of the world and disconnect from the demands of the daily grind in order to connect to our families, our friends, and our communities.

Shabbat Shalom!