Parshat Vayakel 2020/5780

This is a trying time for all of us. This pandemic has affected all our lives in many
ways: socially, emotionally spiritually and financially. It is also forcing us to redefine what we mean by community and to reshape our personal interactions. It can make us feel isolated and powerless. The challenge of living with the reality of this pandemic will become greater before it finally lessens.
Still, we need not despair. We have two extraordinary gifts that, used properly, can help us surmount even the most daunting of difficulties: We have each other and we have God and we have Shabbat.
My colleague Rabbi Steve Weiss writes: We do not need to allow this pandemic to drive
us apart. If we are creative, we can find the ways to support each other, to enjoy
fellowship, to express our love and concern, to help each other with our needs, to lift up
those that are fallen, stand for causes we care about and even to celebrate and have fun.
Do not allow the physical requirements of social distancing to fray the ties that bind us
to friends, loved ones, community and those in need.
My colleague Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky writes: “Every hand that we don’t shake must be a
phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression
of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we place between ourselves and
another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to the other, should the
need arise.” We need to cut down on our conversations about the virus. We need to
express joy. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught “mitzvah gedolah lih’yot b’simcha – it is a
great mitzvah to be joyous.”
Today I would like to discuss Shabbat, a topic frequently referred to in the Torah. In
fact, Parshat Vayakel’s recording of the observance of Shabbat marks the eighth time
this topic has been mentioned since the beginning of our reading. God really knows
how to hammer home a point. But here at the beginning of Chapter 35 there is a
difference. We are told that Moses gathered the entire assembly together the day after
Yom Kippur, nearly a week after the destructive sin and tragedy of the Golden Calf, and
he wants to study some Torah with them. If you check the end of Chapter 34 beginning
with verse 30, you will see that the people “feared to approach Moses” when he
returned from the mountain with the second set of tablets. The “skin of his face had
become radiant.” He had to put a mask on to speak to God. The world for the surviving
Israelites had changed. This is the first time the Israelites have an intimate moment with
him as their teacher.

Moses gathers everybody around him to learn the law of Shabbat including the prohibition to light fire on Shabbat. Why? And why now?
If you look back at the end of Chapter 31 in Parshat Ki Tissa at verse 12 – the last thing God commands Moses before the Golden Calf episode is to have the Israelites observe Shabbat in the famous refrain we sing on Friday night (Vshamru). In other words, the whole ordeal of the Golden Calf from the beginning to atonement on Yom Kippur is bracketed by the command to observe Shabbat. It is as though Moses’ conversation was interrupted by this terrible story and then when it was over, he got back to the business of teaching Torah where he left off – as the Yiddish saying goes: “Veiter b’Torah” “Let’s return to where we left off in the Torah.”
This is the key to understanding why we start with Shabbat in Parshat Vayakhel. Shabbat is the frame for this whole idolatrous event. Idolatry is about turning away from God. Shabbat is about turning to God. Idolatry is about seeking in the material world things that give us a false sense of confidence. An idol will lead the way and protect us. That was the thought going through the minds of the Israelites, as we discussed last week. We sacrifice our control to another force and declare ourselves helpless in the face of an invisible God.
When Moses confronts his brother Aaron after the incident, demanding to know what happened, Aaron responds: “I said to them [the Israelites], ‘Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it me; then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” (Exodus 32:24) In other words, Aaron’s defense is he did not make the idol. No one did. All he did was cast the gold into the fire. There was no plan, no tools, no artisan. It just walked out. This is Aaron’s way of saying that he could not have stopped it from happening. It was not in his control.
When we see ourselves as powerless, we are like Aaron. Our surrender of the very powers which God bestowed upon us – our minds, our hearts, our physical abilities – is itself a form of idolatry. The solution to the problem of idolatry is found in the repetition of Shabbat before and after the story. We are shown in bold relief what can happen when idolatry takes over as on a screen with the words of observing Shabbat above and below (like supertitles). We are told in the Talmud Yerushalmi that when all Jews were to observe Shabbat properly, the mashiach would come. Why twice and not just once? The Talmud teaches that the first Shabbat is an island in time. It serves the purpose of preparing us for the week ahead, affecting Sunday, Monday and so on but the second Shabbat is completely different. This Shabbat marks a spiritual pinnacle. It is not an island. It is the Shabbat of a week, and world, uplifted.
When the Shabbat law is doubled in Chapter 35, idolatry is erased. Maybe the Jews did not get it the first time. We share with God the greatest event of creation — the spirituality of self-restraint. Just as God had create a space in Himself –a tsimsum– to hold creation, so too we restrain ourselves from all manner of work. We glorify Him as a our true creator.
We live in a time when people easily give into panic. People who are hoarders are only protecting themselves. They feel a sense of false security as they clear grocery shelves of their toilet paper. A single friend of mine called me to celebrate that he bought 24 rolls of toilet paper! People who favor guns to protect themselves need more guns and are crowding gun stores. And it is not the sale of guns that is going up, it is the ammo. Why? When asked they say they are preparing for the days when resources grow scarce and the police will not be able to defend them. Other idols: trusting one news source and spreading false reports.
Shabbat teaches us about mindfulness and using our mindful states throughout the week. The more we agitate, the more selfish we become the more idolatry will creep into our souls and we will turn against God. I have said it before and I will say it again: We must be calm during times like these. We have seen them before and our love, our God, this Shabbat will help us through it. Thank you to the Cohens for setting up a virtual place where we can continue to worship together. This has been for me an emotional experience. Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.