Sunday, February 28, 2016

Parashat Vayak’hel - Light My Fire

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayakhel
Light My Fire

In the aftermath of the golden calf debacle, in the wake of the destruction and death it caused, and after God agreed to forgive the nation and move forward, Moshe descends from Mount Sinai with a new set of Tablets. At last, Moshe has the opportunity to speak to the people. These same people had stood at Sinai and heard the commandments spoken by God Himself, but had backslid, and worshiped the golden calf. Now, Moshe is to transmit everything he learned at the summit of Mount Sinai. Where should he begin? As readers, we might imagine the crackle of expectation in the air: Moshe is presented with an unparalleled opportunity to educate and inspire the repentant nation, to transmit the Torah he has brought down from on high. How should he proceed?

This very particular moment, a moment laden with remorse, tinged with longing for the holiness that had been forfeited, awash in the desire to hear and obey the word of God, is where Parashat Vayakhel begins. Moshe gathers the entire nation, and he begins with Shabbat. Why was this his choice for the first and foremost lesson? The logic behind the selection of Shabbat may be seen from various perspectives: On the one hand, Shabbat may have been used as an antidote to idolatry. The people needed a refresher course, as it were, in Jewish theology, and as a lesson of God as Creator of the universe, Shabbat is an outstanding reminder and teaching aid. Additionally, Shabbat is more than a dry lesson in Jewish thought; it is a powerful and moving experience which, we might conjecture, people had been easily led astray by the thrilling, sensual extravaganza of idolatry: The food and drink and physical pleasure of Shabbat was intended to counter the very powerful experience of worshipping the calf.

We should note that this is not the first, the second, nor even the third time that Shabbat is mentioned in the book of Shmot. The first time was when the manna fell for six days, and desisted on the seventh. The people noticed that a double portion had fallen on the sixth day, and Moshe explained that this is what he had taught them (presumably at Marah) regarding Shabbat: No one was to go out on the seventh day to collect the manna. This was their first experience of Shabbat, and this single prohibition was later included in the larger corpus of the Laws of Shabbat. Indeed, the Torah tells us that there were those who violated Shabbat, even when there was only one single prohibition, going out with basket in hand with the intention of collecting the manna.

In Parashat Vayakhel, as Moshe begins to teach the people Torah, another prohibition is added, a second Law of Shabbat singled out: It is prohibited to light fire on the Sabbath day. Eventually, the corpus of Shabbat Laws will include 39 categories of creative work that are prohibited on Shabbat; these categories are derived from the Torahs description of the creative work employed in building the Mishkan. These 39 categories are outlined by our sages in the Mishnah, as an extrapolation of the relevant passages from the Torah, with the notable exception of the two categories we have seen singled out and specifically prohibited by the Torah itself, namely: carrying objects between domains, as was specifically prohibited regarding the manna, and the use of fire, as we have seen in this weeks parashah.[1]

In a sense, these two categories of creative work stand at opposite poles on the spectrum of human endeavor; perhaps that is why they are singled out: Neither the kindling of fire nor the transport of objects from one domain to another fits easily into the formal categories that comprise the laws of Shabbat. These two categories represent two extremes as far as human creativity is concerned: Fire is the most elusive of the elements; in the more abstract, conceptual name we use to describe it energy it is the very symbol and essence of human creativity and ingenuity. We might say that all of technology is, in one way or another, mans harnessing of energy, his use of fire for the advancement of humankind. Conversely, carrying objects is the least creative of the categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat, as the object itself undergoes no transformation but is merely transferred from one location to another. However, these two outliers may convey a message that is far deeper than meets the eye.

Let us return to the primary discussion of Shabbat, found in the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment, as found in the book of Shmot, reads:

Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks. For God made the heaven and the earth [and] the sea, and all that is in them, in six days, but he rested on the seventh. God therefore blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Shmot 20:8-11)

On the other hand, in the parallel passage in the book of Dvarim, when the Ten Commandments are reiterated, there is a striking difference:

Observe the Sabbath to keep it holy, as God your Lord commanded you. You can work during the six weekdays, and do all your tasks You must remember that you were slaves in Egypt, when God your Lord brought you out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. It is for this reason that God your Lord has commanded you to keep the Shabbat. (Dvarim 5:12-15)

The description of Shabbat in Shmot refers to the Creation narrative as the rationale for Shabbat observance: Through our cessation of creative work on the seventh day, we acknowledge and testify that God is the Creator. In particular, we should not overlook the fact that the very first act of Creation was the decree, Let there be light. So, too, according to a rabbinic tradition, mankinds first foray into creativity was with the discovery and use of fire. In emulation of God, Adams first creative gesture was the use of fire when the first Shabbat drew to a close. For this reason, the prohibition against the use of fire on Shabbat is singled out; it is, in essence, the very heart of the matter, the very crux of the story of the Creation of the universe and of mankinds place within it as a sentient being created in the image of God.

On the other hand, the Ten Commandments recorded in Dvarim memorialize the Exodus from Egypt: As we stress in the haggadah, God took one nation from the midst of another, carrying us out quite literally, removing us from one domain to another, from the house of bondage to the wide open spaces of freedom.

We may say, then, that the two formulations of Shabbat, the two rationales for observing Shabbat that are recorded in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments, are reflected in the two prohibitions that were singled out: lighting fire, as a reflection of Creation, and transferring objects between domains, as a reflection of the Exodus. By honoring and cherishing Shabbat, we testify to both of these historic events and strengthen our commitment to our covenant with God. By desisting from creative work, and particularly from the two categories that were singled out, we take advantage of our weekly opportunity to emulate God and tap into the holiness of the seventh day.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

[1] See my previous treatment of these two prohibitions of Shabbat in A River Flowed from Eden (New York: Kodesh Press, 2015), p. 87-90.

Vayakhel - Audio and Essays

Audio and Essays Parashat Vayakhel

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Light My Fire

Fire (and Carrying)


Shabbat; Spiritual Rehabilitation - Why was Shabbat the first law taught after the sin of the Golden Calf

The Holy Am Haaretz - 5773-The laws of Shabbat as understood by the ignorant and how this crept into Jewish practice according to the Netziv

Shabbat Creation Kabbala and Infinity - explores the relationship between building the Mishkan and Shabbat

Vayakhel Pikudei


The Seventh Day

Shabbat: Spiritual Rehabilitation

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Parashat Ki Tisa After the Gold Rush

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tisa
After the Gold Rush

It was all supposed to be so very different: Their stop at Sinai was originally supposed to be brief, but transformative. When the Children of Israel arrived at Sinai, everything seemed so special, so idyllic, in so many ways: They had come together as a nation, bonded in a sense of unity and love, born of a common past and a shared vision of the future. “As one man, with one heart,” they prepared themselves to enter into a covenant with God, to take a quantum leap towards the fulfillment of the promises made to their forefathers. In preparation and affirmation of this great moment in history, they brought offerings. And then, the heavens opened; they were granted a vision of God, as He Himself spoke words of holiness to them. The next stop should have been the Promised Land, where they would put the commandments they had just received into practice, creating a new reality, a perfected society and a holy community.

Instead, something went wrong; things began to unravel. After hearing only two commandments, the people felt overwhelmed: The experience was too intense. God had more to say, but the people demurred. They asked that Moshe serve as a conduit, that God speak to Moshe alone, who would then relay the message to them in a more digestible form.

Moshe was invited to climb the mountain; there were more laws to be taught, more instructions to relay.

While Moshe was away, the people became afraid: What was taking so long? Why had he not returned? Their deepest fear seemed to have been realized: Moshe had died and left them without a leader, before their mission had been accomplished. After all, Moshe was just a man, and men can break your heart; even the best of them are fickle. The people demanded something more sturdy, something more permanent. They settled on a calf made of gold – and declared that this calf had taken them out of Egypt. Their “logic” seems absurd: How could the gold taken from the ears of their loved only that day have been credited with redeeming them from slavery? Even worse: How could they have fallen so far from the pinnacle of spirituality they had achieved 39 days earlier? They had heard two commandments spoken directly by God, and theirs words and actions lay those two commandments to waste: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no gods other than Me. Do not make an idol or any graven image…” How were they capable of fine-tuned cognitive dissonance? How had they managed to so quickly, so completely, almost purposefully negated the awe-inspiring Revelation? Their about-face seems all the more absurd when we remind ourselves that these same people had eaten manna for breakfast that very morning! How outrageous it seems that, as they wiped the last bits of manna from their mouths, they expressed disbelief in Moshe’s ability to survive up on the mountaintop without food or water! With the evidence of God’s miracles still between their teeth, how did they, how did they lose faith in God so quickly?

The people seem determined to counter each and every element of the Sinai experience with a counterfeit, contradictory gesture: At Sinai, they had brought offerings as part of the covenant forged with God; now, they brought offerings to the calf. In an unmistakable gesture, they made an exchange, an “upgrade:” In place of the God who had redeemed them from the bondage of Egypt, they had a golden calf. Instead of offerings to honor and praise God, they brought offerings to celebrate the idol they had created with their own hands. In the words of King David:

They made a calf at Horev, and worshipped a molten image. Thus they exchanged their Glory for the likeness of an ox that eats grass. (Tehilim 106:19-20)

And then, Moshe returned. Tragically, instead of greeting him with songs of praise and joy, instead of honoring the Tablets of Testimony Moshe had brought down from the heavens, they serenaded their calf in a frenzy of idolatrous revelry. Moshe entered the camp unnoticed and, strangely, alone; taking in the outrageous spectacle, he threw the Tablets to the ground, and the shattering sound brought an abrupt end to their orgy. They had been unfaithful, and were therefore subjected to a process not unlike that imposed upon a wife accused of infidelity: Moshe melted the calf, ground it into a fine powder, and had them all drink the potion made of their “deity.”

Moshe called out, rallying those who were faithful, those who were devoted to God. Those who answered his call, those in whom the spirit of God was reawakened, were called upon to take arms and purge the community of sinners. This was the final step: The holiness they had achieved at Sinai had been defiled, their covenant with God had been trampled; God had been exchanged for a calf. And now, the unity and friendship they had achieved was exchanged for the sword, as families were torn apart, and brothers turned against one another. The memory of Sinai, the entire Sinai experience, was ruined. The words they had heard had been twisted, the offerings had been rededicated to idol worship, and the sense of brotherhood dissipated. Had they only been able to wait for Moshe to descend from the mountain, they would have danced with the Tablets, etched by the hand of God, in an unforgettable “Simchat Torah.” A little more faith could have brought them a great deal of love.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden