The Sabbath Is a Life Changer

In the section of Vayakhel, the commandment of observing the Sabbath precedes the recounting of the construction of the Tabernacle. The Talmud deduces from this order that the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. One may not say that building a Tabernacle is such an important task that it should supersede the Sabbath, and be performed even on that holy day. No, quite the opposite. All 39 labors that were required to construct the Tabernacle become the 39 labors that are specifically forbidden on the Sabbath.

In the book of Leviticus, however, there is the following verse: "A man shall fear his mother and father, and you (in the plural tense) shall observe my Sabbath, I am the Lord." The sages of the Talmud use this verse to teach us another lesson of priorities. If your parent tells you to violate the Sabbath, you may not listen to them.

The commentaries ask that this seems to contradict the lesson of Vayakhel, that the sequence indicates precedence. There, the Sabbath preceded the Tabernacle, so the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. Why, then, in Leviticus, where the order is reversed, don't we say the same thing? We should say that fearing one's parents takes precedence over the Sabbath, because it precedes it in the verse!

What they don't mention is that in the 10 Commandments, Sabbath comes before "Honor thy father and my mother." Let's take a closer look at the way a person must relate to their parents, because this will lead us to the Sabbath and to the Tabernacle beyond.

Children must relate to parents in a special way, for two main reasons. First of all, gratitude for all of the kindness that our parents have done for us is the character trait behind the commandment to honor them. Honoring one's parents is performed by doing things for them. In the words of the Talmud, "take them out, take them in, feed them and clothe them..." This is the element of gratitude, of doing for them what they have done for us. For that reason, incidentally, the father is mentioned first, because it is less intuitive. A person naturally will love and wish to serve their mother, because she took more care of them during their infancy. So the Torah stresses that the father must also be respected and honored, equally to the mother.

The second reason children must relate to their parents in a special way relates to the child. It is because the parents are the link to tradition, and they pass on the mission of God to their children. This, I believe, is at the core of the commandment to fear one's parents. Fear does not mean trepidation that they will cause physical harm. The Talmud tells us what fear means: Do not sit in their place, do not contradict your parents, do not shame them. In other words, recognize that they are your teachers, and they are giving you your mission as part of the people of Israel.

The difference between the two reasons is huge. Gratitude is simply saying thank you, and doing kindness for them in return for the kindness they did for you. Fear -- respecting them as bearers of the mission -- tells the children how they must live their lives. It informs their purpose in life, and goes to the core of their identity. Our parents must become part of us, guiding us to continue the mission, to grow it and fulfill it.

Enter the Sabbath. At its core, the Sabbath is a day of acknowledgment of our divine mission. The Torah uses an interesting phraseology in introducing the Sabbath: "For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day it shall be a day of rest... whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die." It does not say we need to work for six days, it says "six days work shall be done". The emphasis is on the work, not on the doer. The doer is mentioned in the next verse, "Whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die."

When soldiers go out on a mission, they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the mission. That is the emphasis, not the actions they must take as part of that mission. The mission of the Jewish people is to build the Tabernacle, to bring God's presence into the world. Lest we begin to think that we are bigger than the mission, and that the mission is simply a means for our own aggrandizement, we are told to cease and desist on the day when God ceased creation.

I remember the year I produced my musical, and was fortunate to have an extremely devoted director working on it. He is a Sabbath observer, and the week before the show opened, he was put to the test. He had a lot of things that needed to be done, and needed to be ready for the Saturday night rehearsal. But Friday was ending, the sun was setting, and the Sabbath would start in a couple of minutes. He knew he would not finish in time, and would come to the rehearsal without full preparation, resulting in possible embarrassment and big problems for the production. He kept on working, and at one minute before sunset, he had to make a choice.

He chose the Sabbath. As he told me afterwards, when he put down all those papers and his pen, the most beautiful peace descended upon him and his home. He had never experienced such a wonderful Sabbath before. In that one choice, he affirmed that the mission is more important than the doer, and the mission is not the play. It's the Tabernacle, it's bringing God into the world. Nothing is more fulfilling than being a part of that.

And so, the order of these verses is perfect. A person should fear their parents, recognizing their sense of mission. That will lead them to observing the Sabbath, the day when we acknowledge that the mission is more important than the doer. And what is that mission? To build the Tabernacle, bringing God's presence into the world.

In other words, "You do not need to complete the work, but you are not at liberty to stop working at it." A person who works with the belief that they must complete the mission has put themselves above the mission. They will not learn from the Sabbath. A person who works because the mission needs to be done, recognizes that it is not their personal mission, but, rather, it is God's, will properly rest on the Sabbath, and lead a fulfilled life.