The opening three verses of Vayakhel deals with the observance of Shabbat: “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: these are the things which God has commanded that you do. Six days shall you labour, and the seventh day shall be holy, a Sabbath unto the Eternal; whoever does work on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day. Rashi reminds us that the verse order, where the law of Shabbat precedes the laws about the building of the Mishkan, teaches that even the building of the Sanctuary is less important than observing Shabbat. The Sabbath, the day for remembering God’s creation, for resting from work, is so important that even the holy work of building this place must stop for it.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of Shabbat as being ‘a palace in time’. He sees the entwining of the biblical texts on Shabbat and the Mishkan, and understands that sacralising time is far more important than sanctifying space. The pattern of six days of work which are followed by the Shabbat when all labour should be avoided, is a deliberate resonance with the Creation of the world in Genesis. Shabbat is the culmination of the Creation, a weekly prompt to us of our purpose in the world. Heschel reminds us that “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
The sanctification of time rather than place is the real innovation in the worship of the incorporeal and transcendent God. Along with its lack of physical dimension, time is universal, it belongs to everyone. Unlike buildings or land, no one can claim that the day belongs to them alone, no one can claim ownership of time. And the sanctification of time does something else. As Heschel wrote “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time... There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”
Each of us is able to control how we use our own time, each of us has the same resource measured in minutes, hours, days, weeks, seasons. If we choose to pay attention to how we use our time in this world, if we deliberately use our time to work for the purpose of making our world a more sacred place, then we will have understood the message in Vayakhel.
Heschel reminds us that the verb ‘kadesh’ meaning to sanctify or to separate out for a distinct purpose is first used at the end of the story of Creation, when God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy”, a statement we recite at kiddush. There is no other reference to anything else in creation being made holy. Not the world, not people, not any special place. At the beginning of our history holiness was to be found in time. We became a holy people much much later, at the theophany at Sinai. And places only became holy with the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary whose completion we read about this week.
Every hour we have is unique, filled with possibility, endlessly precious, and potentially holy. Once we have sacred buildings it is easy to forget that actually we live in sacred time. But we do; and ultimately each of us uses our own time, making choices about how we spend it, how we allow its use to impact upon us.
Time is more sacred than space. And all of us live in time that is limited yet infinitely possible. As we come towards the end of the book of Exodus, leave behind the stories that begin in slavery and move into the wealth of possibilities that is the desert experience, the constraints of place need no longer oppress us – we inhabit holy time.