There are four places in the Torah that juxtapose Shabbat and the Mishkan, the portable Temple used by the Jewish people during their time in the desert until King Solomon built the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The first place is found in last week’s parsha, Ki Tisa; the second is this week in our parsha, Vayakhel; the third comes from parshat Kedoshim, and the last time these subjects are brought together is in parshat Behar.
The great scion, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of blessed memory, explained the intertwining of these two topics. Both the Shabbat and the Tabernacle (Mishkan) are sanctuaries for Hashem. One sanctuary is in time and the other in space. What do we say every Friday night? We sing out, “Lecha Dodi, Welcome my Beloved!” We invite God into our homes as we do a dear friend. However, the Mishkan was the abode, so to speak of God. There, in that space, was the location of His divine presence, the “Shechinah.” At the end of next week’s portion, Pekudei, we are told that as soon as the Mishkan was erected, a “cloud of glory” hovered over it by day and “a pillar of fire” by night. Unlike Shabbat, where God comes to our homes, we are commanded to visit God’s dwelling place three times a year, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
The sanctity of the Mishkan and later that of the Temple in Jerusalem is permanent. It can never disappear. Although the physical structure was destroyed, the Shechinah is always there. This fact creates halachic issues for observant Jews wishing to ascend the Temple Mount, even today.
The Shechinah’s presence in the Mishkan and Temple was of a transcendent nature. The 7th Mishnah in chapter 5 of Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, lists 10 miracles that happened for our ancestors in the Temple. The Temple also played a key role in determining one legal issue. Its water was used to determine the veracity of a claim of adultery brought by a man against his wife. These miracles only occurred there and ceased with the Temple’s destruction. Anyone who came to the Temple could witness these miraculous occurrences.
Shabbat, on the other hand, testifies to the Divine nature of the universe. It functions without interruption based upon God’s infinite wisdom displayed in the laws of physics. They are in operation every nano-second. We mention this idea every morning in the first blessing said before reciting the Shema. In that blessing, we state, “And in His goodness, renews daily, continually the act of creation.” This statement by our great sages attests to the fact that if God’s will for the existence of the universe were to lapse, so to speak, even for one moment, the entire universe would cease to exist.
Not only does the universe have a Creator but the nature of the universe’s existence is a dependent one. The universe has no inherent nature to exist. Once a week, on Shabbat, we use a complete 24 hour period to reflect on this fundamental idea. Shabbat demonstrates God’s presence on a natural level. God reveals himself in the order of nature. The Torah’s injunction for us to rest on Shabbat symbolizes the harmony of the natural law.
Now the question may arise, which sanctuary that of the Mishkan or Shabbat is more significant or important? The Mishkan as we said above reflects the supernatural (the 10 miracles on display there), while Shabbat reflects the natural physical order. The natural order we take for granted, as “ho-hum.” Miracles, however, make a powerful impression. Our attention is grabbed and we are wowed. We would, therefore, conclude that the sanctuary of the Mishkan is the more significant of the two.
In truth, however, it is the sanctuary of Shabbat that is more significant. It is with the Shabbat that the Creator of the universe has entered into a covenant with the Jewish nation. “The Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for their generations…” (Shemot 31:16). But when presenting the two sanctuaries in Shemot 31, God in His Torah goes out of His way to say with regard to Shabbat, “Ach…However, you must observe My Sabbaths.” Shabbat takes precedence even over the building of the sanctuary of the Mishkan, the sanctuary of the miraculous.
As Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked many times, the survival of the Jew is not bound up with the sanctuary of the Mishkan. We have survived and thrived as people without its existence for two thousand years. While the Mishkan is a lofty, majestic and important place, we must remember “each.” The sanctuary of Shabbat is essential to Jewish survival. “If not for My covenant day and night, the laws of the universe have no value.” (Jeremiah, 33:25)
In the merit of our embracing Shabbat each week, may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan