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Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon Feb. 25, 2022

Vayakheil for Reading

Plaut p. 612

Source Sheet by Yair Robinson



Exodus 35:1-3

(1) Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that יהוה has commanded you to do: (2) On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to יהוה; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. (3) You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.

שמות ל״ה:א׳-ג׳

(א) וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃ (ב) שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַיהֹוָ֑ה כׇּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת׃ (ג) לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃ {פ}



What is the nature of work? Is it something that is done for pay exclusively? Does it require expertise? When should one work, and where? What are the boundaries of work? As a society, we are undergoing a radical shift in our thinking of the nature of work. Partially a result of the pandemic, and partially a result of years of erosion of worker’s rights and the proliferation of technology that allowed work to be done seemingly all the time, people are asking very hard questions about when it should take place, when is it equitable and when is it not, what are the rights of workers, and when is it enough.


But these questions are not new; in fact, our parasha itself invites those questions. Here, God commands Israel to work for six days, and on the seventh observe a day of complete rest, a Sabbath. God then invites the Israelites to contribute–in wealth, wisdom and work–to the making of the mishkan, the tabernacle, the sacred space that Israel will carry through the wilderness. Many commentators note that the placement of the mitzvah to observe the sabbath next to the instructions for making the mishkan is no accident; that the text is making a point. Frequently, commentators will say that this proximity means that the ‘work’ that is to be avoided on Shabbat is the work done to make the mishkan. But there’s another, more expansive, moral argument to be made here.


For centuries, the nature of Israel’s work was avodah, servitude. As slaves, they toiled daily, without break, to fulfill the whims of pharaonic despotism, building cities and temples that served no purpose except the satisfaction of Pharaoh’s idolatrous vanity. Now, Israel is invited to partake of the work of making sacred space, but right off the bat the nature of that work is different. For one thing, the work of sacred space must include sacred time, time for Israel to observe a complete rest. It’s worth noting that previously, in Exodus 20, the description of the Sabbath tied it to the creation story, and included anyone–Israelite or non-Israelite, even the animals–in its requirement to observe a complete rest. The rest becomes universal. 


Additionally, Israel is invited–not coerced, or forced–to bring the materials for making the mishkan. Even more than that, God invites those with skill and imagination, with ‘wisdom in their hearts’, to help design and create the mishkan. The work becomes a shared endeavor, perhaps not between two equals, but certainly between partners. The word that is used to describe this work is malacha, and Bible scholars will refer to malacha as work with agency, empowering work, the work of people with free choice, the very opposite of slavery.


So back to the question at the beginning, what is the nature of work, and what are its limits? The Torah seems to make some suggestions on what work ought to be and ought not to be, and what the limits are, and the importance of sacred time in our lives. Not just for the making of a tabernacle but of the world itself May we be inspired, then, to work in true partnership with one another and the world, and make Shabbat, sacred time, a priority not only in our lives, but in the lives of others. Amen.