Why is there so much detail relating to the building of the Mishkan (mobile Temple)? This is the fourth week that we are reading about it!

Ramban (d. 1270) explains that actually there were two commandments to build a Mishkan. The original commandment occurred before the Israelites made the golden calf. The Israelites had assembled at Mt Sinai to receive the Torah. The Mishkan, with the Ark in the Holy of Holies, was to be a travelling reminder of the experience of G-d’s closeness at Mt Sinai. When the Israelites sinned, the whole notion of a Mishkan was suspended. It was only reinstated after G-d forgave the people and gave them a new set of Ten Commandments. The verses in this week’s portion, repeating the details of the Mishkan, are a demonstration that G-d had restored His presence in their midst.

Yet, at the beginning of the parasha, before we get to the Mishkan details, there is a warning about keeping Shabbat. We learned about Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. This mitzvah was not singled out when the Mishkan was commanded on the first occasion. Why repeat it now? Rabbi J B Soloveitchik (d. 1993) explains that there is a difference between necessities and luxuries. There are basic necessities that we absolutely need for our physical lives, and then there are luxuries which we greatly enjoy, but we can live without them. Similarly, in our spiritual lives, there are mitzvot that are fundamental to our existence as a people. There are other mitzvot, which, although beautiful, we can survive without, if necessary.

The Jewish people have survived for nearly two thousand years without a Temple. Indeed, some of our most important works, such as the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch, and the Zohar, have occurred without a Temple. Obviously, a Temple and prophets would enormously expand our religious horizons and capacities. Yet we can survive without them. On the other hand, the Jewish people cannot survive without Shabbat. Without the Sabbath the Jews as a people would die. Shabbat is to the soul, what bread and water is to the body. It is a vital, spiritual necessity.

When the Jewish people lost their spiritual balance by making a golden calf, they needed to appreciate their spiritual necessities before they could go ahead with the Mishkan. That’s why the commandment to keep Shabbat is repeated at the beginning of this parasha. However much we may value the Mishkan, the Shabbat is even more important. The Torah teaches us that a Mishkan or Temple may not be built on Shabbat. Shabbat is the spiritual necessity we cannot live without unlike the luxury of the Temple that we will enjoy, again, when we deserve it.

We can connect to this idea easily as we have all experienced this lesson in our own lives. During lockdown, it was difficult, but we survived with our synagogues closed. But Shabbat was always there, a weekly beacon lighting up our lives.