Paradise Island: It is not a place, but a time…
Parasha Vayakhel presents Judaism’s teaching that the spiritual path is enhanced more by the sacredness of time than the sacredness of space. One might not immediately think such a conclusion is accurate, for after the soaring narrative of the opening of the Torah from the book of Genesis through the giving of the mitzvot at Sinai, the Torah presents five parshiyot in a row which primarily deal with the construction of the tabernacle, our first holy space. Its repetitive details about the building of this holy space at first make one think that having a holy space is the most important aspect of Judaism. Indeed, one rabbinic commentator suggests that “God so loved the idea of having a permanent home amid the Israelites that the details were repeated”. Another suggests that the earlier version of the instructions represents God’s commands, reflecting the enthusiasm descending from on high for this link with God; and that the later version represents Israel’s carrying out those commands, “showing the corresponding enthusiasms welling up from below.”
(See commentary, Etz Hayim, p 552).
However, other commentators notice a few salient points that indicate that “holiness in time” supersedes “holiness in space.” First, throughout the book of Exodus there are many references to Shabbat interspersed among those concerning the construction of the Tabernacle, as in the opening of this week’s parasha. Second, the commandment of Shabbat forms part of the revelation at Sinai; the commandment to construct the holy space of the Tabernacle only comes after the making of the Golden Calf and the apparent need of the ancient Israelites to have some more concrete form of worship. Third, as Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi who coined the term “holiness in time” and called Shabbat “an island in time” noted:
“One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh – holy; a word which is more than any other representative of the mystery and majesty of the Divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is indeed a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And god blessed the seventh day and made it holy’.” Indeed, the rabbinic tradition understands that malakha (the work prohibited on Shabbat) relates to 39 categories of labour involved in the construction of the Tabernacle.
Sadly, many Jews miss out on the joy of Shabbat. Some look at the experience in an “all or nothing” way: given the 39 categories of malakha and the many halakhot (Jewish laws) derived from them, keeping Shabbat is “far too onerous”. Yet, we can look at things differently and create our own “island in time”. In our increasingly frenetic and materialistic world, Shabbat offers a day in which we refrain from consuming and producing and focus on enjoying the experience of being. Eating, drinking, singing, sleeping, reading, learning, praising, thanking, relaxing, conversing and loving are the central activities of Shabbat. Perceived this way, we realize that Shabbat is an extraordinary gift, an opportunity indeed to “rest and re-soul”. We then can understand that Paradise island is a not a place, but a time ….