I will be forever grateful to Rabbi Efry Spectre z’l, one of my beloved predecessors at Adat Shalom Synagogue, for introducing me to the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel zl.
I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s. Rabbi Spectre gave a class at the Hillel House on Heschel. I was intrigued and started reading Heschel on my own. His work spoke to me in a deep and profound way. It fueled my interest in becoming a rabbi and still influences me to this day.
One of Heschel’s great teachings centered on Shabbat, and how it was one of the great contributions of Judaism to the world, not just in having a day of rest, but in thinking about what mattered most in our lives, and how we could be partners with God in creating beauty and meaning in the world.
This is what Heschel wrote about Shabbat:
“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.”
This approach to Shabbat is key in understanding our Torah portion. It begins, “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them:
These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: 2 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. 3 You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:1-3).
The rest of the reading is a detailed description of the Tabernacle and the articles of the priesthood. Why is Shabbat juxtaposed with the construction of the place where God’s presence will dwell with the Israelites? As Heschel indicates, time is just as sacred as place. Without creating sacred time, a place cannot be holy. It will just be a building.
I talk to a lot of couples about the kind of home they are establishing. I tell them the single most important factor in the happiness of their home is whether they make sacred time for each other. This means that they give the best of what they have to each other on a regular basis, and not just the dregs that are left after a long week of work. A vacation to the fanciest place a week or two a year cannot make up for a lack of quality time spent together on a regular basis.
Even a modest home becomes a palace when people who say they love each other spend time in a relaxed and happy way. Our homes become like the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and Temple.
This is why Shabbat is such a gift. Every week we know that we will have a good day. That is rare in our tense and stressful times. We light candles, have a good meal, and express our appreciation for all the great good in our lives.
Heschel said, “With our bodies we belong to space; our spirit, our souls, soar to eternity, aspire to the holy. The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit.” Thanks to Shabbat, no matter where we are, we can create a place of beauty and joy.