Circumstantially, the book of Exodus ends much as it begins, with the Israelites collectively toiling to build a significant structure at someone else’s behest. As Exodus opens, we are slaves, constructing garrison cities for Pharaoh. At its end, with this week’s portion, Pekude, we build the portable sanctuary for the God who redeemed us from Egyptian bondage.
This shift happens in less than six months. What difference does that time make? What is the distinction between being a slave to Pharaoh and a servant to God? What is the point of the liberation journey if we end up laboring on both ends?
Rabbi Shai Held notes: “As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites work without respite against their will. When they build the mishkan in this week's parashah, in stark contrast, Moses asks for voluntary contributions. Finally freed from slavery, the Israelites are slowly being taught that there is a form of service radically different from slavery, one that honors and nurtures one's sense of agency rather than degrading it and whittling it away.”
At the heart of what differentiates service from slavery dwells Shabbat. It is no coincidence that when Moses lays out instructions for how to build the tabernacle, he begins with Shabbat: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest holy to the Lord..." (35:2). In Torah, work and rest are each made holy by the possibility and the presence of the other. Without rest, even the holiest work eventually becomes drudgery. And without meaningful work, even sacred rest soon settles into boredom. Just as in music, we need both notes and rests to create a beautiful score, a well-lived life is defined by both sacred labor and the regular pauses that keep that labor sacred.
May all of our building—and our rest—move us, this week, toward service of the Holy One.