The Centrality of Shabbos to Spiritual Growth
Parshat Vayakhel primarily discusses the contribution of the materials used to construct the Mishkan, and the actual construction itself. However, before delving into these matters, the parsha starts off with the command to observe the Shabbos (verses 2 and 3). From the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbos and the Mishkan, the rabbis learn that the labors required in the construction of the Mishkan are those labors which are prohibited on the Shabbos. Further, from the phrase "ay'leh hadevarim" (35:1), the gemara determines that there are 39 such labors.
What is the significance of the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbos?
To understand the value of Shabbos, we must first delve into the essence of the Mishkan. That essence is captured in the verse (Teruma 25:8) first setting forth Hashem's command to build the Mishkan: "V'asu li mikdash, v'shachanti b'tocham - They shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them."
In both his commentary on the Chumash and in his Collected Writings (Volume III), Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch dwells extensively on the symbolism of the Mishkan. Commenting on verse 25:8 above, Rav Hirsch explains the meaning of the verse as follows:
"Mikdash expresses the totality of the task we are to fulfill towards God; Mishkan [represented by the word "shachanti"] expresses the fulfillment of the promises made to us by God in return for our fulfilling that task. Mikdash signifies the consecration of all of our lives, both public and private, to the fulfillment of God's Torah. Mishkan signifies the promised presence of the Shechinah, manifesting itself in the prosperity of our private and national life under His protection and by His blessing [in exchange for that fulfillment]."
In his Collected Writings (III: 167), Rav Hirsch comments further:
"God's dwelling in our midst extends beyond the narrow confines of the Temple. His dwelling in our midst means that His beneficent and protecting Presence will be felt in every aspect of our lives. Moreover, God's presence in our midst is not dependent on the existence of the Temple, but, in the final analysis, solely on whether we will sanctify and dedicate all of our lives to the fulfillment of His holy will, to the fulfillment of His Law."
In sum, the construction of the Mishkan, and later the Beis Hamikdash, was not an end in and of itself, and the rituals performed therein were not the exclusive instrument for obtaining the blessing emanating from God's presence. Rather, the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash were intended to serve as an inspiration to the Jewish people to sanctify their conduct so that Hashem's presence would be felt in every aspect of their lives (signficantly, in 25:8, the phrase used is "shachanti betocham" - in them (plural) - had Hashem intended his presence to dwell exclusively within the Mishkan, the wording should have been "b'tocha" - in it).
Not surprisingly, when reasons are given for the destruction of the two batei mikdash (Temples), they are unrelated to any deficiency in construction, or poor maintenance of the structures. Rather, it was a failure to conduct ourselves in accordance with the Torah (most significantly in the laws between man and his fellow man). Having failed to inspire us to sanctified conduct, the key purpose of the Temples was not achieved, and so they were destroyed.
But did the destruction of the Temples mean Hashem could no longer dwell in our midst? G-d forbid. Rav Hirsch finds proof that God's presence in our midst is not dependent on the Temple from the fact that the "chet haegel" (sin of the Golden Calf) preceded the construction of Mishkan:
"The greatest national crime was committed [i.e., the "chet haegel"], and the highest grace was attained from God [i.e., complete forgiveness] - without Sancturary and without offerings. If any more proof were that the Sanctuary and the offerings in themselves do not secure God's favor, but are intended only as guides to the attainment of God's grace, then such proof is offered" by the experience of the "chet haegel" and subsequent "teshuva" (repentance) of Bnei Yisroel, which was accepted by Hashem in the absence of the Mishkan.
Yet, if neither the Mishkan or the Beit Hamikdash are no longer present, from where can we now derive our inspiration to sanctified conduct? The answer, it would appear, is the Shabbos. That is, the juxtaposition of the Mishkan and the Shabbos is not merely some legalistic association intended to teach us the categories of forbidden labor. Rather, the deeper message is that long after the Mishkan is gone, we retain Shabbos observance as a tool to inspire us to greater closeness to Hashem and allegiance to his Torah.
Just as the labors exerted in the construction of the Mishkan represented the subordination of all of the world's raw materials and our craftmanship to the will of Hashem (the sanctification of human labor), so too our abstaining from work on Shabbos represents an opportunity to acknowledge of Hashem's role in our lives. Shabbos reminds that the results we achieve through our labors during the six days of the week are due entirely to the raw materials with which Hashem has endowed the Earth, and the capacity for creative and intelligent thinking with which He has endowed Man.
To further accentuate the connection between the Mishkan and the Shabbos, we might add an interesting historical footnote concerning Sir Isaac Newton, whose writings reveal an intense interest in the archictecture of the Mishkan. Apparently, Newton viewed the dimensions of the Mishkan as representative of the structure of the universe itself. In parallel, it is through Shabbos that we acknowlege Hashem as the Creator of that universe.
Thus, it is clear that one who views each Shabbos as a respite from six days of work, to which he or she will return upon the conclusion of Shabbos, refreshed and recharged, is squandering an opportunity. Rather, the Shabbos is our Mishkan. Therefore, like the Mishkan, each Shabbos must be viewed as an instrument to reach a new level in our commitment to Torah, and a heightened awareness of Hashem in our lives.
How do we do that? Not just by abstaining from work, but by participating in the myriad rituals and customs of Shabbos - each person according to their own preferences: inspired tefila, Torah learning, zemirot, and family time both at the Shabbos meals and afterwards, which represent opportunities to impart our values to our children so that they too may experience growth (indeed, recent research has validated the value of shared family meals as a chance to pass along values).
One symbolic representation of this mindset is the wine of kiddush and the havdalah. By way of background, why is it that wine plays such a prominent role in several of our lifecycle rituals - kiddushin (marriage), bris milah, and kiddush? Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains that, whereas most substances degrade with age (think spoiled milk), wine is the rare substance that improves with time (as noted in Wikipedia, "The aging of wine, and its ability to potentially improve wine quality, distinguishes wine from most other consumable goods.").
Thus, wine is a very fitting substance with which to mark Jewish "rites of passage" where the message to the participants is that they are entering a new phase in life with the potential for increased spiritual growth with the passage of time.
The only exception here seems to be the wine of the "havdalah" service (by which we demarcate the end of the Shabbos and the beginning of the new week). How can moving from Shabbos to a new week of work represent an opportunity for spiritual growth? The answer is that if we take the spiritual insights and growth we obtained from Shabbos and apply them to our conduct during the upcoming week we will, in fact, experience improvement in our spiritual state as compared to the prior week, and the week before, and so on. And when we arrive at the next Shabbos, our spiritual state will be higher than the Shabbos before. In short, like wine - we too should improve with age. And this growth is due to the Shabbos - an instrument to achieve a spiritual trajectory that rises each week - but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.