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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

In the immensely lengthy and detailed account of the making of the Tabernacle, the Torah tells the story twice: first (Exodus 25:1-31:17) as Divine instruction, then (Exodus, chapters 35-40) as human implementation. In both cases, the construction of the building is juxtaposed to the command of the Sabbath (31:12-17; 35:1-2). There are halachic and theological implications. First, according to Jewish tradition, the juxtaposition was intended to establish the rule that the Sabbath overrides the making of the Tabernacle.

Not only is the seventh day a time when secular work comes to an end. It also brings rest from the holiest of labors: making a house for G-d. Indeed, the oral tradition defined “work” (melachah) – that which is prohibited on the Sabbath – in terms of the 39 activities involved in making the sanctuary. At a more metaphysical level, the sanctuary mirrors – and is the human counterpart to – the Divine creation of the universe. (For the precise linguistic parallels between Exodus and Genesis, see Covenant and Conversation, Terumah 5763/2003.) Just as Divine creation culminates in the Sabbath, so too does human creation. The sanctity of place takes second place to the holiness of time (on this, see A. J. Heschel’s famous book, The Sabbath).


However, there is one marked difference between the account of G-d’s instruction to build the sanctuary, and Moses’s instruction to the people. In the first case, the command of the Sabbath appears at the end, after the details of the construction. In the second, it appears at the beginning, before the details. Why so?

The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat (69b), raises the following question: what happens if you are far away from human habitation and you forget what day it is? How do you observe the Sabbath? The Talmud offers two answers: R. Huna said that if one is traveling on a road or in the wilderness and does not know when it is the Sabbath, he must count six days (from the day he realizes he has forgotten) and observe one. R. Hiya b. Rav said that he must observe one, and then count six (week)days. On what do they differ? One master holds that it is like the world’s creation. The other holds that it is like (the case of) Adam. From G-d’s point of view, the Sabbath was the seventh day. From the point of view of the first human beings – created on the sixth day – the Sabbath was the first.

The debate is about which perspective we should adopt. Thus, at the simplest level, we understand why the Sabbath comes last when G-d is speaking about the Tabernacle, and why it comes first when Moses, a human being, is doing so. For G-d, the Sabbath was the last day; for human beings, it was the first.

But there is something more fundamental at stake. When it comes to Divine creation, there is no gap between intention and execution. G-d spoke, and the world came into being. In relation to G-d, Isaiah says, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’ ” (Isaiah 46:10). G-d knows in advance how things will turn out. With human beings, it is otherwise. Often, we cannot see the outcome at the outset. A great novelist may not know how the story will turn out until he has written it – nor a composer a symphony, or an artist a painting. Creativity is fraught with risk. All the more so is it with human history.

The “law of unintended consequences” tells us that revolutions rarely turn out as planned. Policies designed to help the poor may have the opposite effect. F.A. Hayek, the economist and philosopher, coined the phrase “the fatal conceit” for what he saw as the almost inevitable failure of social engineering – the idea that you can plan human behavior in advance. You can’t. One alternative is simply to let things happen as they will.

This kind of resignation, however, is wholly out of keeping with the Judaic view of history. The sages said, “Wherever you find the word vayehi [and it came to pass], it is always a prelude to tragedy.” When things merely come to pass, they rarely have a happy ending. The other solution – unique, as far as I know, to Judaism – is to reveal the end at the beginning. That is the meaning of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is not simply a day of rest. It is an anticipation of “the end of history,” the messianic age. On it, we recover the lost harmonies of the Garden of Eden. We do not strive to do; we are content to be. We are not permitted to manipulate the world; instead, we celebrate it as G-d’s supreme work of art. We are not allowed to exercise power or dominance over other human beings, nor even domestic animals. Rich and poor inhabit the Sabbath alike, with equal dignity and freedom. No utopia has ever been realized (the word “utopia” itself means “no place”) – with one exception: the World-to-Come.

The reason is that we rehearse it every week, one day in seven. The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass, but will because we know what we are aiming for – because we experienced it at the beginning. We now begin to sense the full symbolic drama of the making of the Tabernacle. In the wilderness, long before they crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land, G-d told the Israelites to build a miniature universe. It would be a place of carefully calibrated order, as the universe is a place of carefully calibrated order. Nowadays, scientists call this the “anthropic principle,” the finding that the laws of physics and chemistry are finely tuned for the emergence of life. (On this, see the book by the astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe.)

Just so did the Tabernacle have to be exact in its construction and dimensions. The building of the Tabernacle was a symbolic prototype of the building of a society. Just as it was an earthly home for the Divine presence, so would society become – if the Israelites honored G-d’s laws. The ultimate end of such a society is the harmony of existence that we have not yet experienced, living as we do in a world of work and striving, conflict and competition.

G-d, however, wanted us to know what we were aiming at, so that we would not lose our way in the wilderness of time. That is why, when it came to the human execution of the building, the Sabbath came first, even though in global terms, the “Sabbath of history” (the messianic age, the World-to-Come) will come last. G-d “made known the end at the beginning” – the fulfilled rest that follows creative labor, the peace that will one day take the place of strife – so that we would catch a glimpse of the destination before beginning the journey. Only those who know where they are traveling will get there, however fast or slow they go.

{Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Orthodox Union}


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.