This parsha opens with Hashem’s instruction to Moshe to ‘take a census’ of the people by having each adult give a Half-Shekel to the Tabernacle. The rich could not give more and the poor could not give less, but each one gave the exact same offering. The message is not difficult to discern. Every soul is of equal value. The rich man is not more ‘valuable’ because of his money; the poor man is not ‘less valuable’ because of his poverty. The soul is above and beyond being evaluated by the things of this earth. The soul is eternal, it is precious, it is the vehicle of connection between man and Hashem. The soul has the spark of Life from Hashem Himself. Its value cannot be measured in earthly terms. It is good for us to remember this principle in our everyday relationships with others.
A few verses later, the commandment to observe and preserve Shabbat is given for the second time. We know from the rules of biblical exegesis that when something is repeated in the Torah, we are to understand that it is of supreme importance. But why is Shabbat discussed precisely at this juncture in the text?
In the two previous Torah portions we have read and studied the very detailed instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle in the desert. Each part of the construction was outlines in such great precision that the conclusion might have been drawn that the Tabernacle was THE most important part of Israel’s service, even more important than keeping the Sabbath. To think so would have been a serious error and therefore, Hashem re-iterates the pre-eminence of Shabbat.
In chapter 31:13 we read, ‘Now you, speak to the Children of Israel, saying, However, you must keep My Shabbats; for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations to know that I am Hashem, Who makes you holy.’ Notice the emphasis on the last few words. You might have expected the text to read,’…for I am Hashem Who makes the Tabernacle holy…’ But that is not what we see. This entire passage is designed from the word ‘However’, referring to all that has just been said about the building of the Tabernacle, to the end of the passage, ‘to make you holy’
to remove any and all doubt for all time that the observance of Shabbat is more important than any building.
Buildings come and buildings go. The Tabernacle was temporary; the Temples were temporary; but Shabbat is eternal. As has been said, it is not so much that the Jews have kept Shabbat, but Shabbat has kept the Jews.
Six days we work but on the seventh day we rest because Hashem also completed His work of Creation in six days and He rested on the seventh. And what was His ‘work’? How was Creation accomplished?
He spoke and the worlds were made.
A significant part of our ‘rest’ on Shabbat should therefore include taking extra care that our speech on Shabbat reflects the holiness of the day. While we need to guard our tongues every day to be sure, how much more on Shabbat. This is why we do not talk about our work of the past week on Shabbat, nor do we make plans for next week on Shabbat. This unique day is a ‘Spa for the Soul’, as one person described it recently. I like that. If you’ve had the pleasant opportunity of visiting a well run Spa for a few hours, you know how delightful it can be, how refreshing to the body and the soul. The quiet atmosphere, the soothing music, the herbal tea, the beauty of nature in which the Spa is located all combine to make your visit there a deeply restorative experience.
Shabbat is meant to be all of that and much, much more! Embraced with joy and observed in peace, Shabbat is the ultimate ‘Spa’ experience for the soul….and the body benefits as well.
Later in this week’s text we are confronted with the heart-breaking event of the Golden Calf. Moshe had ascended the mountain and the 40 days of his absence was just about over. In another half-day, he would return with the Tablets of the Torah. But just when the nation was about to receive its greatest gift, the Torah of Hashem, the forces of evil moved in to prevent that from happening.
From this event is derived a well known principle: when our dreams, desires and goals are just about to be realized is precisely when the temptation to take matters into our own hands is the strongest. Others say it this way: it is darkest just before the dawn.
However it is described, the principle holds. Human impatience seems to rear its head just before the realization of what we have hoped for and prayed for.
The results were catastrophic. Three thousand died and it was decreed that the generation who had come out of Egypt would all die (from ages 20 and older) without entering the Promised Land.
Yet in the midst of this tragic incident, we still find opportunity for great inspiration and hope.
1) The manna continued to fall, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire continued to protect and lead the people. Hashem did not remove His provision or His kindness from them.
2) When Hashem’s anger is aroused against the people because of this sin, He declares His intent to do away with them and ‘make you (Moshe) a great nation.’ This moment, in my estimation, is Moshe’s finest hour. When presented with the opportunity to become, as it were, the ‘new Avraham’, the founder of a ‘new people of Hashem’, not a shred of ego does he show. Instead, the outstanding character of a great leader springs forth as he eloquently pleads with Hashem to spare His people, to remember the covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’acov. A lesser man could have so easily swelled with pride – not Moshe. His heart is for the people, not for his own advancement or honor.
Would that every leader would follow his example!
Hashem does, in fact, relent; the second set of Tablets are created and in the shadow of the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem reveals to Moshe — and to all of us — the Thirteen Attributes of His mercy.
“Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger and Abundant in kindness and truth; Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations [of those who love Him], Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful sin and error, and Who cleanses – but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents [who do not repent] upon children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
In Tune with Torah this week = recognizing and rendering immense gratitude towards Hashem for the amazing mercy, compassion and kindness He has shown to us in our lifetime; and assuring that we have truly repented of all inquity, that He may show Himself to be the Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations of our descendants.