Shabbat provides a reminder of the ‘why’ behind religious observances

Rabbi Hyim Shafner


With this week’s Torah portion, Pikudey, we will finish the book of Shemot, Exodus, and the reading of a five Torah portion series that describes the tabernacle, a moving temple the Jews had in the desert, and its erection. In these portions, God describes the tabernacle to Moses while he is on the mountain and then tells him the mitzvah of Shabbat. Following this, Moses descends the mountain, sees the golden calf, breaks the tablets, gains atonement for the people, makes a second set of tablets and ascends the mountain for another 40 days. Upon descending again, Moses tells the Jewish people the mitzvah of Shabbat and then the Torah describes the building of the tabernacle and its vessels by Bitzalel the architect and the many Jewish people who pitched in with the various labors necessary for its building.

This forms a curious pattern: tabernacle, Shabbat, golden calf, Shabbat, tabernacle. The Talmud tells us that Shabbat is always mentioned in juxtaposition to the tabernacle to teach us that the tabernacle may not be built on Shabbat. In fact, the Talmud learns all of the laws of what one may not do on Shabbat, the 39 forbidden labors of Shabbat, from the work it took to erect the tabernacle. Essentially, what one can not do on Shabbat is “build a tabernacle.”

It seems like a bad idea to give a nation that has just built an idol out of gold a commandment to serve God by building a tabernacle and its vessels out of gold. How will this prevent the Jewish people from lapsing back into idolatrous worship? Why not give them something less risky, such as prayer? In fact the Midrash tells us that the heads of the golden cherubs on the ark were the heads of male cows!

Perhaps the message is that when building a tabernacle for God, or doing anything religious (or not religious) for that matter, we run the risk of making an idol. How to avoid this pitfall? The answer is Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us “why” as we go about building and getting caught up in “how.” The Jewish people hoped to reach God through the calf, as Aaron exclaimed before the calf, “A holiday to God (the real God) tomorrow,” but the calf was an idol to the Jewish people.

An idol is made when we idealize something – when we make it something it is not. This can be a calf of gold thinking it is God, or a Hollywood star thinking they are more than an actor or person. Or ourselves.

So, too, can a tabernacle become an idol. If we become obsessed with the how of its construction and forget why – forget that it is for God to dwell among us – then we have made it into an idol. The Shabbat comes to create balance; a stop from the dangers of our furious obsessive work, even holy work.

Whether in secular pursuits or in holy things such as mitzvot, commandments, let us learn from the Shabbat to take the time to focus on the why and not just the how and what.

Shabbbat Shalom.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.