Parshat Vayakhel continues the detailed instructions regarding the building of the Mishkan.
But right in the middle of all the instructions, God tells Moshe to tell the people of Israel to observe the Shabbat. Why? After all, God has already commanded the Jewish people concerning the Shabbat at least twice already in the Torah. Why do the Israelites need to hear it again and why right in the middle of the instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle?
Many of the commentators teach that it is to emphasize the importance of Shabbat. That as important as the building of the Tabernacle is, its construction does not override the Shabbat.
But wait, Shabbat comes every week! You would think Shabbat should take a back seat for something like the building of the Mishkan which happens only once in a lifetime.
Judaism teaches just the opposite. The Talmud states: “tadir v’sheno tadir tadir kodem, that which is regular and happens all the time, takes precedence over something that happens less often.” One example of this halacha is when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat. The tradition is that when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat, we do not blow the shofar. But Rosh Hashanah only happens once a year! Surely that should take precedence over Shabbat which happens all the time!
I think we have this reaction because in our society, that which takes place less often, is usually taken more seriously than that which happens all the time. Birthdays and anniversaries are usually held up as more significant occasions than things we do on a routine basis like going to work, or the everyday dealing with our friends and family. The Torah teaches us just the opposite. What we deal with every day is considered more significant in the eyes of the Torah, and says more about who we are than the once-in-a-while occasions.
One of the children of the late Torah Sage, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, told such a sweet story about his father. He said that on cold winter days his father, Rav Moshe, would lay out their clothing on the radiator so his children would have something warm to get into. It was a small gesture but it left a lasting impression with the children. They saw that even though their father was an internationally known rabbi constantly sought out for his counsel, he found the time to do something for his children. It showed he really cared for them.
We’re all familiar with Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” where the father says, “But there were planes to catch and bills to pay; He learned to walk while I was away. And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew, he’d say, I’m gonna be like you dad. You know I’m gonna be like you.”
Then the son turns 10 and he thanks his father for his birthday present. Even though the father does not seem to be around much, he does manage to buy his son a birthday present because again, it’s the occasion that we celebrate. We make a big deal about birthdays, but not the everyday. And what is the birthday present in the song? It’s a ball but the father has no time to play with his son. He’s got the present; He’s got the ball, but the father has no time to use it to bond with his son. It’s the antithesis of “tadir vsheano tadir tadir kodam.” The once-a-year birthday present happens, but that which is more important—spending time with his son, does not. When the occasional trumps the everyday, the relationship will be lacking in a real way.
This also applies to our relationship with God. If we only connect with God during those large communal times, then our relationship is also missing something. It’s often the times when everyone else isn’t around when we spiritually connect. It’s often the “small” and everyday things that make our relationships real and when we can find ourselves spiritually. Not just at the big services and Jewish events but the private times, like saying the Shema before going to sleep. That’s when we can feel Hashem, sometimes more than at a large and public prayer service.
We may have internalized the idea that to feel something great, the event must be public and spectacular. The energy needs to be intense and the room filled. This is certainly not true of human relationships and also not true of our relationship with God. We may be misled into thinking that unless the spiritual experience is an awesome one, it’s not worth having it.
I see this in my own outreach and educational work. When performing mitzvot, the tendency, particularly among the newly observant, is to always feel the need for great excitement and intensity. Don’t get me wrong—exciting and electrifying religious experiences are great. But it’s just not possible all the time. There are times when we daven and we’re just not feeling the excitement. There are times when Shabbat is pleasant but not amazing. That’s okay. Like in any relationship, there need to be times of passion and excitement but sometimes it’s also good for the couple to just be. I tell my students—not every date has to be incredible. Not every encounter needs to sweep us off our feet. There most certainly should be such moments at times, but ultimately the relationship should be able to handle some down time where the couple doesn’t need that same level of chemistry or intensity. That makes it a real relationship and understanding this is just part of growing up.
The same goes with our encounter with Hashem and His mitzvot. We don’t have to be always be blown away by a Torah class to continue to want to study Torah. At some point, we must be able to pray, learn and grow in our Judaism not only because of the feelings those activities produce within us, but because of the long-term commitment we are trying to develop. Love is never enough to sustain any relationship. A commitment to the relationship itself is also necessary. And with every davening, Torah class and mitzvah performed, we are increasing our commitment to our Creator and drawing ourselves closer to His being—even if we aren’t feeling it.
The Orthodox community is sometimes lacking a certain passion and excitement and therefore can be inspired by the intensity and energy that baalei teshuva, those who return to the religion, bring into our community. But what newcomers to Judaism can learn from the Orthodox community is the ability to remain committed to a certain lifestyle without the constant need for inspiration and excitement. May each of us find the right balance between excitement and passion on one hand, and consistency and commitment on the other. That balance will, no doubt, provide us with the best chance of achieving the kind of meaning, purpose and happiness we all seek.
Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.