Creation and Holiness
This week’s double parashah brings us to the end of the book of Exodus. It is largely devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle in accordance with the detailed requirements enumerated in previous sidrot, so much of the material is already familiar and commentary is usually quite brief.
Rabbi Sacks z”l and many early sources note parallels between the making of the Tabernacle and the creation of the world. Phrases in Exodus 39-40 clearly echo similar expressions in the creation story at the beginning of Genesis. Moses ‘completes’, ‘blesses’ and ‘sanctifies’ the Tabernacle as God had completed, blessed and sanctified the heavens and the earth. Seven is a key number in the creation story, and the phrase “as the Lord commanded Moses” appears seven times in the account of the priestly garments, and another seven times in the description of Moses’ setting up the sanctuary.
The idea that the Tabernacle symbolised the structure of creation was well known in Second Temple times and is mentioned by Josephus. It is famously articulated in the Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of rabbinic exegesis that is said to date from the fifth century CE. R. Akiva, the son of R. Yossi (not the better known sage of the same name) asks why the Psalmist says (Psalm 26:8), “God, I love the shelter of Your House and the place where Your glory resides”, and answers that God’s house is compared to the creation of the universe. The Midrash suggests that the association of the Sabbath commandment with the Tabernacle at the beginning of the parashah is likewise to be understood as a link with the creation story. The Sabbath was also mentioned in last week’s parashah (Exodus 31:12-18) in a similar context.
A problem of the Sabbath texts in particular is that they are very spare and opaque, conveying little that offers any insight into the experience of the day and sometimes sounding very stark and forbidding. (The Temple, which was the successor of the Tabernacle, is far better served as the psalmists in particular do convey something of what the experience meant to them.)
The Sabbath text at the beginning of the sidra is a case in point: “For six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy Sabbath of solemn rest for the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
Isaiah 58:13-14 is rather different: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your ordinary affairs on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord is honoured; if you honour it and do not pursue your ordinary business, then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth …”
A third text is from the beginning of the Torah. “So the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their hosts. And on the seventh day God finished the work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that He had done in creation.”
The Sabbath day, like the Tabernacle, is sacred and the ultimate penalty for its public desecration can be seen as a language that conveys the depth and gravity of the Divine holiness. There is nothing wrong with the creative labour that enables us to benefit from the environment in a manner that is essential for human life and endeavour. But if we work in that manner seven days a week, we will have no sense of the holiness of the world and come eventually to ransack and despoil it with terrible consequences.
In kindling fire we are able to master and control one of the great sources of natural energy, but if we use it without the restraint of a sense of environmental sanctity, we will eventually despoil the world that is essential for the survival and flourishing of all forms of created life.
Paradoxically, it is precisely this apparently stark sense of the sacred that gives rise to the depth of joyousness and delight that is at the heart of Isaiah’s experience of the Sabbath. We see the world with a renewed sense of wonder as we recall the first Sabbath of creation in the ‘kiddush’, the sanctification prayer recited at the beginning of the Friday night meal that is part of the weekly celebration of Shabbat that is so important for Jewish family life.
Like the Sabbath, the Tabernacle affirms the preciousness of material creation. There is a joyousness in the sheer abundance of detail, in physicality, colour and texture: “And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn, or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it … and everyone who possessed acacia wood brought it … as an offering to the Lord.” The role of the craftsman is particularly valued. Moses tells the people (35:30) that God has called by name Bazalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. “He has filled him with the Divine spirit, with skill, intelligence and knowledge in every kind of craft … working in gold, silver and bronze, cutting stones for setting, and carving wood …”
The Biblical vision of the holiness of creation is deeply life affirming and was clearly at the heart of its spirituality. The loss of a sense of the sacred universe is a tragic hallmark of modernity that is at the root of our current environmental catastrophe, and its restoration is surely the beginning of wisdom for all of us. It is the gift of the Hebrew Bible for the people of our time.