This week’s Parasha Vayakhel opens with Moses convening a special meeting of the entire Israelite congregation. Those of us with experience in congregational life might imagine him standing up in front with a roll of blueprints under his arm, congregational officers sitting on the dais along with representatives from the architectural firm as well as the general contractors, and delivering an inspirational speech to kick off the fund raising campaign. We can almost hear what he might have said:
“My fellow Israelites, we are about to embark on the most important building project of our lives. We have been given the honor and privilege, and the Divine instructions, to build an abode for God here on earth. And we have been assured that if we build this Mishkan for the Holy One, then God’s Presence will reside not only in it, but in our midst. What could be more exciting, more profound, more inspiring? But as urgently important as this task is there is something even more important. And this is what the Eternal One has commanded first and foremost: ‘On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal One; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death!’(Exodus 35:2)”
At this moment we can imagine what is going through the minds of those on the dais: the chair of the fund raising committee wondering why Moses is getting off point; the chair of the building committee wondering how will they ever finish the project on time if the workers take off a whole day of work every week; and the congregation’s legal counsel wondering what is technically considered work?
It turns out that our ancestors assembled in the wilderness listening to Moses’ speech were not the only ones who might have wondered about what he was saying. The early progressive rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud also had questions about how to apply those pronouncements to their own time. They were progressive (in the same spirit as our current progressive movement) in that they understood that they could not simply take the Torah text literally but would need to analyze it, interpret it, and adapt it so that it would continue to be a living document in their time. Perhaps, in Biblical times it was self evident what was meant by the word work (Melacha in Hebrew) but by the time of the rabbis it was not. So they derived their understanding of work from this parasha. They argued that if the work of building the mishkan was prohibited on Shabbat then it must be that the specific tasks associated with mishkan construction are the tasks included in the category of work prohibited on Shabbat. They identified thirty nine tasks that they considered to be the work prohibited on Shabbat. Their conclusions made sense in their time and place even though they may not have made sense in the biblical setting. Today we might rightly come to a different set of conclusions about what we consider to be prohibited and permitted activity on Shabbat but we can learn from the rabbis that our conclusions should be rooted in the sacred text even as they are informed by the truths of our own time.
We might say that those progressive rabbis of the 1st and 2nd Century of the Common Era had to read between the lines to discern the meaning of work. But when they approached the very next verse of our parasha we would have to say that they went further and wrote between the lines.
Moses might have continued his speech:
“Before I tell you what kinds of gifts you should bring I need to share one more thing that the Eternal One has commanded: ‘You shall burn no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.’ (Exodus 35:3)”
We might imagine that Moses’ contemporaries took this idea in stride. They were, after all, in the desert wilderness and it would not have been a hardship to go one day without fire – and besides, gathering fuel and keeping a fire going was a lot of work. By the time of the rabbis, the idea of going for a full Shabbat with no fire – no heat and no light – must have seemed absurd. They were already living in towns and villages in the Judean Hills and in the Galilee and a Shabbat without fire, a cold and dark Shabbat, would not have been a delight. So, apparently they took a progressive approach and decided to read the phrase “לא תבערו אש lo t’va’aru aish You shall burn no fire” as though it said “לא תדליקו אש lo tadliku aish You shall kindle no fire.” Their innovative, interpretive reading of the text became the norm in Jewish law and culture.
The rabbis of Mishnaic times walked a fine line between fidelity to the text and the tradition on the one hand, and necessary adaptation and innovation on the other hand. I believe that makes them true progressive Jews and we can proudly consider ourselves to be their spiritual heirs. But in so doing, we, too, must maintain both fidelity to the text and our sacred tradition, and willingness to re-interpret that text and that tradition in light of the lessons and truths of our own time. We ought not discard or ignore the demands of our tradition merely because of inconvenience nor ought we slavishly adhere to notions that are clearly bound to a different time and place. When our inherited teaching seems not to cohere with the reality of our every day lives we could reject the text; or we could deny our own perceptions of reality; but it would be best if we go back to the text and seek new interpretations – just like the rabbis of the Mishnah.
About the author:
Rabbi Michael A. Weinberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Illinois.
The above formerly appeared as #55 in our Torah from Around the World series.