Parshas Ki Sisa begins with a series of seemingly random subjects, ranging from the mitzvah of machtzis hashekel and the construction of the Kiyor, to our topic this week, a short review of the laws of Shabbos. The simple answer, given by Rashi, as to why the Torah reminds us now of the prohibition of working on Shabbos is that there is no better time to give this reminder than at the beginning of the construction of the Mishkan. This will be the most important structure ever made, a home for the Shechina of Hashem to rest among the Jewish People in this world. Should anything, even Shabbos, get in the way of its construction? Hashem reminds Bnei Yisrael that yes, Shabbos is not superseded. Regardless of the circumstances, outside of literal life or death situations, you are not allowed to desecrate the Shabbos.
The command to Moshe about Shabbos here has an interesting choice of words. “וְאַתָּ֞ה דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ” “And you (Moshe), speak to the children of Israel and say: ‘Only keep my Sabbaths!” (Shemos 31:13). There are two obvious questions on this phrase. First, why does Hashem need to make a direct reference to Moshe in the pasuk? Who else is passing this message along to the people? Secondly, why is Shabbos written in the plural form? It sounds like Hashem is saying they just need to keep a number of Shabbosos, but at a certain point they won’t?
The Kli Yakar gives an interesting explanation for these questions. Shabbos had a special meaning for Moshe in context of his relationship to the nation. According to the medrash, the day Moshe was chosen as the leader of the nation was on Shabbos. Therefore, it always held a special place in his heart besides for its religious meaning. The Torah discusses the laws of Shabbos several times, this is the first time it is mentioned since Har Sinai. For obvious reasons, Hashem wouldn’t single out that instance for Moshe, but here, in the first instance since, Hashem gives Moshe a special shout-out to his connection to the holy day.
When Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to build a Mishkan, He says, “וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ” “And they shall make for me a sanctuary” (25:8). The medrash explains that any time the Torah uses the word “לִי”, the subject of the reference, the Mishkan in this case, has the capacity to survive forever. However, as we know only too well, the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash have not survived through the generations. The Kli Yakar explains that Shabbos is the key. The gemarah in Shabbos (118b) says that if Bnei Yisrael would keep two Shabbosos perfectly, in the way they were intended to be celebrated, the Geulah would come immediately. Our pasuk references this idea by writing the word Shabbos in plural form, as well as using the word “אַךְ” “only”; only in this way, by keeping the Shabbos, can the Mishkan survive forever. That is why Shabbos is mentioned here, right before the commencing of the Mishkan’s construction.
This gives even more significance to Rashi’s answer we mentioned at the beginning. The Mishkan is of vital, almost unmeasurable importance, to the Bnei Yisrael. But one thing that cannot under any circumstances be pushed to the side is the keeping of Shabbos. For without Shabbos, the Mishkan itself cannot survive.
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