The extract from the portion that is recommended we read this week comes not from the beginning of the portion but one chapter further in. It begins on Exodus chapter 31 and ends in chapter 32 verse 6. Since this is neither the beginning of the portion, nor the whole portion the three subjects that are tackled appear somewhat random. The selection begins with the appointment of Bezalel as overseer of the work of building the Temple and of Oholiav as his assistant. It then continues with the command to keep the Sabbath and concludes with the incident of the golden calf.
But the three passages are far from random. They connect, through biblical editorship and through rabbinic interpretation, in a very strong theological narrative.
After weeks of detailed description as to how the Tabernacle would look, we now are given the name of the master builder. Bezalel is to receive the spirit of God – a wisdom that means not intellectual capacity, but great skill as a craftsman. This is something to remember as we fret over our children’s A levels; that God seems to favour those who make over those who think. Moses may see God face to face, but it is Bezalel who is filled with God’s ruach and whose inspiration comes directly from the Divine. This makes a fitting end to the commands about building the structure that will house the commandments God is giving Moses. One would have thought the Torah portion would end here. But the fact that it continues means we must read the next command in the context of the tabernacle and its building.
‘You shall keep the Sabbath whoever does not shall be put to death.’
Stark words. No one wants to be put to death, but the problem is, there is no detail here as to how to keep the Sabbath. We are only told
‘Whoever works on it, their soul shall be cut off.’
So what is the work we are not to do on Shabbat? The Rabbis of old gave us the answer through the juxtaposition with Bezalel. The work forbidden is the work aforementioned – the work on the Tabernacle. Thus the Rabbis came up with their famous thirty nine categories listing in detail all manner of labour connected to building a structure. From planting the seeds that grow the flax, to spinning, dying, weaving and sewing; from mining the precious stones and minerals, through smelting to fashioning, from drawing up plans to quarrying, to laying bricks and painting – all are forbidden on Shabbat. In fact anything creative, anything that Bezalel could do is not to be done one day out of seven. God created for six days of the week, but did not create on the seventh. Thus we too can create for six days, but on the seventh day the world at the end of Shabbat should look exactly as it did at the start.
However, while all this is being instructed to Moses, the people down at base camp have other ideas. They gather before Aharon and say
‘Up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this Moses, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
So Aharon makes the golden calf. That this should happen while God is instructing Moses on the Tabernacle and the command of Shabbat is a sweet irony. For why do the people want a god made for them at this point? Because of the human need for symbolism, for representation. We cannot hold totally abstract thought in our minds for long, we need reminders; we need signposts. The calf that Aharon fashions need not be seen as an alien god, but as a representative of the God the people worship. The Tabernacle, to be replaced in later history with the Jerusalem Temples, fulfils that need; a great structure, a symbol witnessing to the greatness of God.
Shabbat too, becomes a representation of God’s presence among the Jewish people. In the absence of idols, the weekly cessation of work, the special prayers are testimony to a God that is different from all other gods around. This is the God that creates everything, that controls everything that commands the cessation of creative activity. Where Shabbat is mentioned in the rest of Tanakh – in the prophets and in the writings - it is in the context of idolatry and of the uniqueness of Israel.
The people needed a symbol, a visual and tangible sign of God’s presence. They got Shabbat; subtle but nevertheless visible and tangible. The writer Ahad Ha’am famously said,
‘More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.’
We no longer fear death if we work on Shabbat, but Shabbat still encompasses for us and for the people around us what is unique about God and what is special about the people Israel.