by Rabbi Avi Matmon
When opportunity knocks, answer because you may not get a second chance. Or, to quote the language of our Sages "a closed door does not easily [re]open" (Bava Kamma 80b). One must always be ready to immediately take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.
There are thirteen times where Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah it seems like G-d is trying to hammer into us a message, don't you think? Our parsha this week hints something fascinating about Shabbat. Its message is something powerful involving the community and our obligation to it. Let's start with a question about the title of the parsha. There is no other directive that we encounter Moshe addressing the nation as an assembly, a "kahal". Why is it necessary to do so for the mitzva of Shabbat?
There is a direct correlation between Mishkan and Shabbat: The ultimate purpose of erecting the Mishkan was to achieve "I shall dwell in their midst." Shabbat as well is intended to be "an eternal sign between Me and Bnei Yisrael." (Shemot 31:17)
The mastery of Man over matter in terms of getting, producing, changing, manufacturing the raw materials of the world, attains it highest meaning in the Temple. The world submits to Man for him to submit himself and his world to God, and for him to change this earthly world into a home for the Kingdom of God, to a Temple in which the Glory of God tarries on earth. The building of the Temple is a sanctification of human labor, and in the context here, it is represented as being a combination of all those creative activities of Man, by the cessation of which - by cessation from all Melacha - the Shabbat is made into an acknowledgment of man's allegiance to God.
The Torah, in its initial command to avoid a certain class of activities on Shabbat, does not specify those actions. Rather, the Torah states: "Do not do any Melacha". (Sh'mot 20:10). This command is repeated in many other Shabbat-passages (31:14-15, 35:2, Vayyikra 23:3, Devarim 5:14). What is the meaning of Melacha? This key word - which is not only the principal phrase of prohibited work on Shabbat but also on the other Holy Days of the calendar (see Sh'mot 12, Vayikra 23) - means something akin to "work" and is first used in the description of God's creation of the world (B'resheet 2:2-3). Nevertheless, it is not at all clear which type of work is prohibited on Shabbat. How do we distinguish prohibited actions from those which are permitted on Shabbat? The Gemara (Shabbat 49b) records a B'raita that indicates that the definition of Melacha is based upon its meaning in the Mishkan. (See Tosafot ibid. who indicates that this is the reason that the two sections were juxtaposed in the Torah) Any activity which was an integral part of the construction of the Mishkan is defined as Melacha and is, therefore, prohibited on Shabbat.
Let's get back to our question. I would like to convey a startling message that was derived from a story related by Rabbi Jay Shapiro quoting from the writings of Rabbi Chaim Vital. There was this very important upstanding Jewish community member who was hosting a very urgent meeting at his home. It was a Friday night Shabbat meal. As the host was accompanying the guest home from shul (Bet Haknesset) where they attended the evening services, his wife, with a horrified expression on her face, motioned him into the kitchen. When the husband entered he realized the oven was never turned on before Shabbat and the chicken was not fully cooked. With a houseful of guests in attendance, the host wondered what to do. He looked over his shoulder and discreetly turned on the oven.
Rabbi Chaim Vital said this person never kept Shabbat! This is a bit harsh considering he was an observant Jew his whole life. Rav Chaim continues, true this upstanding individual always kept Shabbat something which he inherited from his parents, but that is exactly the problem. It came to him automatically; it was a weekly habitual ritual. He was never tested. His friends, neighbors, and family were all Shomer Shabbat. This incident was the first test in his life about keeping Shabbat and he failed.
In this week's parsha, opportunity is knocking on the door but not taken. After all donations given by the people for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) were collected, the tribal leaders gave their portion. The problem was that by the time they gave, there was virtually nothing left to give because the people's donations had covered almost all of the expenses. The only thing left were the stones on the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). The tribal leaders had lost an opportunity and were not part of the momentous building project of constructing a central yet portable synagogue that would accompany the Jews wherever they found themselves in the dessert and later in the Land of Israel until Solomon's Temple was built.
"And the leaders brought the shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the Breastplate." (Exodus 35:27) Why did these leaders wait so long before making a donation? Rashi addresses this question and cites a Midrash: This is what the tribal leaders said, 'Let the community donate what they will donate, and whatever they are missing (i.e., whatever is left to be donated), we will complete." Since the community completed everything, the leaders said, "What are we to do?" So, they brought the shoham stones.
Their intentions seemed noble; they wanted to let others have the opportunity to give. If so, why were they chastised? Rashi continues: Since at first they were lazy (i.e., they did not immediately donate), a letter was removed from their name. [The word "leaders" is intentionally misspelled by omitting a letter (the Hebrew letter "yud.")]
Take, for example, this past week were an armed officer stood outside a Florida school where a gunman killed 17 people. "Certainly, did a poor job", US President Donald Trump said. Deputy Scot Peterson resigned after an investigation found he failed to confront the suspect. President Trump said Mr. Peterson might be a "coward" who "didn't react properly under pressure". He was there for five minutes. That was during the entire shooting. He heard it right at the beginning. So, he certainly did a poor job.
We are not here to judge anyone but let's say he was at fault. He, for the most part, should have made an attempt to barge in and apprehend the deranged killer. Granted, it is very dangerous, however this is what he signed up for! For the most part this officer had an uneventful and nonfunctional job. He just stands outside motionless like a British soldier. The school hired him for the purpose to protect its students from a tragic event like what had happened and for that purpose only. Although, it is a million to one odds that it will occur, nevertheless, Peterson had to step up to the plate. This is what he was trained for. Peterson had an opportunity to do what he was brought in this world to do and he failed.
"These are the things that Hashem commanded, to do them." (35:1) Moshe assembles the entire nation and charges them with the thirty-nine categories of labor prohibited on the Shabbat day. From the words that introduce the commandment to observe the Shabbat, "Eileh hadevarim asher tziva Hashem" - "these are the things G-d commanded", the Talmud derives an allusion to the thirty-nine categories of labor, the numerical value of "eileh" being thirty-nine. The remaining portion of the verse seems awkward. Referring to the directive that G-d has commanded, the verse states "la'asot otam" - "to do them". If Shabbot is a day of curtailed activity, why are the Shabbot restrictions defined as an act of doing?
The Midrash relates that at this gathering Moshe institutes the authority that every community is required to provide communal study of the Shabbat laws on the Shabbat. What is the rationale for this mandate? Why must it specifically be communal studying? Why must the study be particularly of the Shabbat laws?
The effect of observing a mitzvah-commandment is entrusted to the individual performing it. The individual's performance of a mitzva has a negligible impact upon the community; one person keeping kosher does not impact upon the community's observance of the dietary laws. The reverse is true as well; the community's observance of kashrut does not affect the individual's observance of the same precept. Shabbat observance is the exception to this rule. An individual who observes the Shabbat surrounded by others who do not, has a very different experience than one who is surrounded by an observant community. Through his Shabbat observance, each individual within a community helps create the Shabbat environment which enhances every member of the community's Shabbat experience. The opposite is also true, the individual desecration of the Shabbat has an adverse effect upon the entire community.
The obligation to observe the Shabbat requires a person to create a Shabbat environment. Therefore, the verse states "la'asot otam" - "to do them"; Moshe is instructing the Jewish community to create the Shabbat. When I was a child I would recall every time the Sephardic Shul-Bet Haknesset authorities would be informed of an arriving guest from abroad, they would call my parents for they knew that we would be happy to have guests. My parents would capitalize on the opportunity, especially when it came to Shabbat. Shabbat was the happening place where my parents came alive.
Many of my readers know, my mother past away five and a half months ago. It has been a year seen she lost conciseness. At the very same time of my mother's sudden deterioration, my neighbor's father fell ill as well, and eventually past away around the same time of my mother's passing.
Since our family finishes the Shabbat meal later than our neighbors, the Englards, I usually to invited Mendy Englard to come by and to share a d'var Torah, then on behalf of the wellbeing, and now in blessed memory of our respective parents. He would come over and we would have a little L'chaim, where then we exchange our Torah thoughts.
It really enhances the Shabbat table the kids love it and it inspires them to say and partake in our discussions. As for myself and Mendy, although we were trained to be believers of G-d partaking in tremendous trust in Him and we both truly believe our loved ones are in a sacred better place, nevertheless we are not robots. We observant Jews do have feelings, you know! And we miss our loved ones terribly. I must say it is an uplift to have an opportunity to spend time with our neighbor-to enjoy his company and enhance Shabbat and raise the level of spirituality in our neighborhood and block. I believe that is taking advantage of opportunity.
Another symbol which is critical in enabling a person to sense his connection is his environment. After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d instructs Moshe to teach Bnei Yisroel how to create a permissible symbol through which they can feel closer to Him. Shabbat is the precept which attests to G-d being the Creator of the Universe and His ongoing involvement in the maintenance of the world. Participating in the creation of the Shabbat environment allows each individual to feel connected to one another and to G-d.
Many of the requirements of Shabbat are designated to establish the necessary atmosphere for creating the Shabbat environment, the candles, special clothing, and delicacies being but a few examples. Moshe's instituting communal study of the laws of Shabbat is intended to assist in the creation of the Shabbat environment. Having the entire community come together and study the subtleties and nuances of Shabbat observance effectively enhances the Shabbat atmosphere. We have an opportunity to create this atmosphere every week. We are blessed to have opportunity knock on our door every week. Let us take advantage!