Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

29 Mar

This week’s (double) parshah begins with God instructing Moses to remind the Israelites that no work is to be done on Shabbat, with the addition of the specific law that “You shall not kindle fire in any of your settlements on the Sabbath Day (Ex. 35:3).” This reminder and expansion of the rules of Shabbat comes just as the Israelites are about to begin building the tabernacle. Rashi comments that the timing of this is no coincidence, theorizing that the Israelites, swept up as they were in their enthusiasm to help build the tabernacle, might have assumed that the mitzvah of building a place to help them connect to God would override the prohibitions of Shabbat when in reality this was not the case, so God decided that this reminder was necessary.

Every time the observance of Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah, a new dimension is added to it. In this case, that new dimension is the prohibition against lighting a fire. The relationship between fire and humanity is a double-edged one. From the time humans appeared on this planet all the way up until today it has been both one of our greatest allies and one of our deadliest adversaries. It provides heat to protect us from the cold, kills off germs and parasites in our food and helps us shape metal into tools so that we can affect the world around us in ways that our human bodies are not naturally capable of doing. We have used fire for everything from staving off predators to launching astronauts into space. And yet fire is also extremely dangerous to us. The moment fire gets out of control it becomes a deadly threat to everyone and everything around it. It burns and consumes and kills and destroys.

Interestingly, fire is often used as a metaphor for passion. An inspirational speaker will be described as having “fire in his/her eyes.” Fire is drive and determination and dedication. The resolve to keep striving no matter how bleak things look is “a fire that won’t go out.”

Though usually portrayed as a positive, it is important to remember that this “fire” can also become dangerous if you lose control of it. God’s warning to the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat right before they begin construction of the tabernacle is meant to teach them not to let their zeal for one good cause them to trample on another. Although there is no tabernacle currently under construction, this is a lesson that we can still benefit from today. It is good to have fire, but if we allow ourselves to lose control of it- if we focus so much on our fire that we begin to justify spreading it indiscriminately- then no matter how noble our intentions are, the end result will be that everything around us will burn.

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