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Friday, February 25, 2011

Parshat Va-yak'hel: Out of the Fire

This week’s parashah/portion is Va-yak'hel (Shemot/Exodus 35:1-38:20).  As we near the conclusion of Shemot/Exodus, we read of Moses relaying God’s instructions concerning the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) to the people.  In the earlier part of Shemot, God gives Moses detailed instructions concerning the mishkan.  This is then followed by the commandment to observe Shabbat as a day of rest, the incident of the Golden Calf.  In this week’s parashah, the commandment to observe Shabbat is reiterated.  Moses then transmits the instructions concerning the building of the mishkan to the people and to Bezalel, the artisan entrusted with the actual construction.

Rashi (12th c. France) comments on the reminder in this parashah that after six days of working we are required to rest on Shabbat by writing that God “prefaced the instructions about the mishkan work with the warning about Shabbat, to tell them that the mishkan does not supercede Shabbat.”  As Aviva Zornberg states in her analysis (“The Particulars of Rapture,” p. 462) “an intimate tension is set up between Shabbat and the mishkan: before even beginning to speak of the building work, it is necessary to articulate a kind of ‘anti-mishkan’ principle.  After all, one might indeed have though that the mishkan does displace Shabbat, that that the crafts that go to create the holy space would continue through the weekly day of sacred [or holy] time … therefore Moses speaks of Shabbat before the mishkan work, to counteract perhaps a natural hypothesis.”  Furthermore, Zornberg reminds her readers that the beginning of the verses concerning the building of the mishkan begin with the words eileh ha-devarim (these are the things).  The 39 letters of this phrase are viewed by the Sages as pointing to the 39 categories of work involved in the building of the mishkan, which later become the 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat.

The Talmud teaches that acts of creation are forbidden on Shabbat.  God ceased the work of creation on Shabbat in order to enjoy the beauty of the world.  So too are we meant to simply revel in God’s created world each Shabbat.  It would seem, according to Zornberg and others, that the work of the mishkan, which was in itself holy, became such an obsession on the part of the people that God was worried that the people would not cease this work on Shabbat.  It may seem extreme to threaten death for those who desecrate the Shabbat, as the Torah does time and again.  But, perhaps the Torah’s authors found this necessary in order to emphasize the importance of Shabbat and to remind the people that it supersedes all other activities of creation – no matter how holy or important they might seem. 

In the prohibition against work on Shabbat found in Va-yak'hel, we also find a new prohibition - that against kindling fire.  As stated above, the 39 categories of forbidden work are traditionally seen as being drawn from the types of work done in building the mishkan.  However, when it comes to fire we find the prohibition of one specific act.  Yet, if the Talmud teaches that the prohibition is against acts of creation, then why is fire – which we often consider destructive – explicitly forbidden at this point?

Of course, though we associate fire with destruction, we know that in reality it is simultaneously destructive and creative.  It is impossible for fire to be purely one or the other.  When destroying its fuel it creates warmth; when lit for cooking, heating or other “creative” purposes it must in fact destroy in order to provide the needed heat.  Fire is also needed for much of the activity involved in the building of the mishkan.  In fact, it would be impossible to build the mishkan without fire. 

Beyond this, Zornberg connects fire with the problems of excess found in the Shemot/Exodus narrative.  When the people are told to bring their gold to build the Calf, tradition tells us that they bring too much and Aaron must tell them to stop.  Similarly, the Torah tells us that when the people are told to bring gifts for the building of the Mishkan they bring an excessive amount as well and Moses commands them to stop.

The Sages viewed the gold of the mishkan as atonement for the gold of the Calf.  In the incident of the Calf Aaron tells Moses that he threw the gold into the fire and “out came this calf!”  This almost comical line points to the transformational power of fire.  Fire also transforms the solid gold of the people’s gifts into the gold to be used in the mishkan.  Fire represents the ultimate creative power with which humanity is imbued – as well as the ultimate destructive power that we also possess.

It might seem to us today that many of the prohibitions of Shabbat are seemingly trivial or inconsequential in the year 2011.  However, if one realizes that the point is not to prevent us from doing what we might consider “work” in our everyday lives, but rather to prevent us from performing even the most simple acts of creation, then the laws make more sense.

Writing as someone who uses electricity, writes and lights fire on Shabbat, I can still find meaning in the specific prohibition against fire in this week’s parashah.  For perhaps the essence of the prohibition against kindling flames is that it is meant to remind us that our creative and destructive abilities are inextricably linked.  It is human excess and indulgence, as represented by the fire that magically and mysteriously produced a calf out of gold, which reminds us of this connection.  By not lighting fire for a day, by not allowing our own inner creative passions to be active, we can gain a new perspective on the world and our relation to it.  By doing this we can then rekindle our flames, as we do at Havdallah, the ceremony that ends Shabbat, and try to use them as creatively as possible during the coming six days of work.

On another spiritual level, we are also reminded that our thoughts and ideas – which are at the root of our creative ability – are also potentially destructive.  If we allow our thoughts to take on a life of their own they can carry us out of the beauty of this moment and hurl us back into the past or ahead towards the future.  Our thoughts, like fire, when allowed to burn out of control, can prevent us from doing the divine work of creation in this world.

Though it is impossible for us to stop thinking, the prohibition against fire on Shabbat can serve as reminder to us of the importance of taking “Shabbat-like” moments in our lives during which we can simply notice our thoughts, but not allow them to take control of us.  We do not intentionally try to create new thoughts; they simply appear on their own.  We should not fight against or try to destroy our thoughts.  Rather, we simply notice when they do arise and then, in the spirit of Shabbat, let go of them and pay attention as well as they dissolve into the ether. 

This is only one interpretation of the concept of Shabbat and the specific prohibition against fire.  What we should try to do is determine what flames within us need to be extinguished, or allowed to simply die on their own, at any given moment.  This holds true not just for Shabbat, but also for every day and every moment of the week.  Perhaps this is what we speak of “taking the sprit of Shabbat into the week.”  By doing so, we can then live a life that is creative, productive and rooted in the present, not in memories of the past or imaginings of the future.  This is how we imbue our entire life with holiness moment by moment each Shabbat and each day of the week. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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