Vayakhel: Paradox of Fire


Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein


After Moses sternly warns the Jewish people to refrain from forbidden labors on the Sabbath, he singles out one of these labors for special mention (35:3). “Do not light a fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

Why is the prohibition against lighting a fire (hav’arah) extracted from the collective mention of the 39 forbidden labors?

The Talmud (Shabbos 70a) cites two views. According to one, it is meant to be a paradigm to show that each individual labor is considered its own distinct violation (hav’arah lechalek yatzah). According the other view, the differentiation of labors is derived elsewhere. The prohibition against lighting a fire sets it apart from the other labors and downgrades it from being a capital offense (hav’arah lelav yatzah).

What are the underlying principles of this dispute?

Let us first consider the view that hav’arah lechalek yatzah. Why would ignition be singled out as the paradigm for a self-standing forbidden labor? Is it because ignition is the archetypal labor? If this is so, then it would be diametrically opposed to the view that lelav yatzah that sees ignition as less severe and hence somehow inferior to other labors. This is highly unlikely, since the Talmud eschews sevaros hafuchos, diametrically opposed views; a dispute is more likely to center over shades of gray than black and white.

According Rabbeinu Bachya and other commentators, the forbidden labors mirror the creative activities by which God created the universe, so to speak. Accordingly, our cessation from labor on the Sabbath is a potent reminder that God rested from creation on the seventh day. Elsewhere, however, the Midrash states fire was first created by Adam at the conclusion of the first Sabbath, one day after he himself was created. Ignition, then, is the one forbidden labor representing an activity specific to mankind that does not reflect any of God’s acts in creation.

At the conclusion of Creation, the Torah records (Genesis 2:3), “And He sanctified [the Sabbath], because He ceased from all His labors that God created to do.” Our sages comment that the verb “to do” (laasos) refers to the work God left unfinished for mankind to complete. Man, through his moral choices, may become a partner in creation by causing it to resonate with the knowledge of God; it is within his power to unleash or actualize the potential of creation. Ignition, which is essentially the release of the potential energy locked in the chemical bonds of matter, is the labor most closely associated with the specific purpose and creative power of mankind.

We can now discern, as did the Sages of the Talmud, two singular and parallel properties in the forbidden labor of ignition. On the one hand, it represents the teleological aim of all the acts of creation. As such, it is the archetypal labor; the first view sees it as representative of all the other labors (lechalek yatzah). On the other hand, it is the one labor that, according to the Midrash, does not reflect God’s handiwork; it is rather man’s specific labor. From this perspective, it is inferior to the other labors; the second view considers its particular mention as an indication that it alone is not a capital offense (lelav yatzah).



Pekudei: Monotonous Repetition

Eighteen times in this parashah, the Torah assures us that “the people of Israel did everything God commanded Moses, so did they do.” What is the purpose of this repetitive emphasis on obedience? Why we have thought otherwise?

This parashah also raises questions about the divine “literary style” of the Author. Parashas Terumah and Parashas Vayakhel already describe the plan of the construction of the Mishkan in painstaking detail. Why then was it necessary to repeat all the details with regard to the actual construction and installation in Parashas Pikudei? Why wasn’t it enough to write that everything was done according to plan?

The same questions arise in Parashas Naso (Numbers 7:11 ff) regarding the sacrifices of the tribal princes following the construction of the Mishkan. On twelve successive days, one after the other of the tribal princes brought their offerings, all of which were identical, yet the Torah expends seventy-eight verses to describe them twelve times. Why the monotonous repetition? Why didn’t the Torah simply describe the first day’s offering and then tell us that all the rest were identical?

It is the nature of a human being to want to feel special and outstanding, especially in an enterprise of eternal significance. It would have been natural for anyone bringing an offering or donation to the Mishkan to seek some individual expression, to do something that distinctly identified him as the donor and set him apart.

Nonetheless, as the eighteen repetitive verses demonstrated, the Jewish people disregarded their own inclinations and followed God’s command faithfully. They were not trying to mold their religious worship to their own desires and personalities, but rather, they were clinging to the divine instruction. The tribal princes as well sought no expression of their own individuality in their offerings, as the seventy-eight repetitive verses demonstrated.

The Torah, in its inimitable style, allows us to experience a bit of the greatness of these people. If we are already impatient with the repetitiveness after a few minutes reading these verses, we can well imagine the feelings of those whose obedient acts allowed for no creativity or expression of their individuality. And they still complied wholeheartedly and joyously with the divine will.