Vayakhel – Torah for Today

Original Broadcast Date: March 13, 2015

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Torah for Today Transcript – Vayakhel

Beerman:

I am looking forward to this particular section that we are going to look at. In this Parsha, containing Exodus 35 through 38, there is a lot of detail. As we look through this, it raises some interesting and fascinating questions about God and how He relates to His people, in connection with some of these instructions that are given here.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, it is interesting that our Torah portion which is from, it is called “Vayakhel” which means “and he assembled.” Khel is the “assembly,” so it is the continuation of what happened in a previous Torah portion where at the end of the previous Torah portion, Moses had to make another two tablets of stone. After all, he was angry at the people who rebelled. And so basically there is some repetition here and one of the repetitions is the repetition of the Sabbath commandment.

Beerman:

Yes, we see this right off here, don’t we? Following these phrases that Moses assembled or gathered all the congregations of children of Israel together and said, “These are the words which the Lord has commanded you to do” so that does hark back, doesn’t it really to what came before with the two tablets of the law?

Bolotnikov:

Yes, exactly. It’s like, “People, you didn’t get it. Now, let me repeat it again.”

Beerman:

Let’s go over it again. There in 35:2, God says, “Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day (Here is the repetition of the 4th commandment.) shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work shall be put to death.” This is a pretty drastic measure that God applies here. If there is a violation of this command for rest, isn’t there?

Bolotnikov:

Yes absolutely, it was once applied later in Leviticus 25. We will see the story of an individual who just went out to the desert to collect firewood on Sabbath, regardless of that. They had to arrest him, put him on trial and stone him.

Beerman:

The natural question arises for any reader of the Hebrew writings. This seems a little severe, and we look out at the Christian community. They read this and wonder, “Wow, how do we relate to God in this case?” because there’s a criminal penalty attached here, a death penalty for violating the commandment.

Bolotnikov:

When we talked about the relationship between the laws of Exodus 21 through 24, in the previous Parashat Mishpatim, we said that these laws are the application of the constitution, the divine constitution, and the constitution said, “Thou shall not murder,” but the application in the Parashat in Mishpatim in Exodus 21 says if someone does murder then there are two options. If there is intent here, it is definitely a death penalty. If there is manslaughter, not a murder…

Beerman:

Right, just happened accidently.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, accident. Then an individual has to run to a special place and sit there, sort of like “imprisonment.” Then there is for theft, “Thou shall not steal,” and again this is the constitution part. In Exodus 22, it says, if somebody steals an ox, he has to pay five times. So here it appears that if somebody violates the Sabbath, this is a death penalty case.

Beerman:

Why do you think Sasha that this amount of importance is put on this particular commandment? We are going to look another one here just follows of three here about fire in just a minute but why so much emphasis on this one commandment and the seriousness of violating it as God brings His people out of Egypt and He introduces himself to them. This seems to be very central and important but why?

Bolotnikov:

Well, first of all we have to look at these laws as deterrents. If we look at Israel’s criminal law at this time recorded in a Torah, the violations of most of the commandments…

Beerman:

Are you talking about the Ten Commandments in specific?

Bolotnikov:

Yes except the theft, the violations of rest of the commandment for example, “Thou shall not commit adultery.” If you find man lying with a married woman, both have to be stoned. So violation of the 7th commandment is also punishable by death. So this just shows me that when you look at the punishments for the violations, Sabbath is not just a simple ritual.

In the Book of Leviticus, we have a number of rituals, and not following some of these rituals or doing them incorrectly does not lead to any kind of criminal penalty. If you mess up with something holy, you have to bring offerings.

The logic I often hear from many preachers who break down the laws into ceremonial, and say, “Oh. the Sabbath is just a ceremonial law. Everything else in the Decalogue doesn’t seem to be ceremonial, but the Sabbath is ceremonial.

Here it shows otherwise. We know for sure that if a person makes an idol and worships an idol, it has a criminal penalty—death. If a son attacked his parents, they could bring him to court, and he could be stoned. This shows that things in this theocratic state of Israel, things that are in direct violation of the divine constitution are punishable by death, and Sabbath is just a one. It is not higher, but it is not lower than any of the other commandments.

Beerman:

Definitely God is very serious about an understanding and practice of it here.

Bolotnikov:

We also have to understand one other thing, and we talked about this in Parshat “Yitro.” We have to understand that Israel as a theocratic state begins with an establishment of a law enforcement system. So in other words, they are not talking about a lynch mob, stoning somebody who is doing something. We see it when the story of this man who was collecting firewood. We see that he was arrested. He was put under guard, and then the Lord gave a command. So there is a criminal proceeding.

We have to understand it, when we talk about the previous Parsha. We did not discuss this—how the tribe of Levi came, and then Moses said, “Take your swords.” It’s not that they were told to go do mass massacre. If they had done that, then it would have caused a civil war. So what happens? You have exactly three thousand perpetrators killed—those who were connected and led this rebellion with the golden calf.

So the tribe of Levi was charged by Moses with judiciary functions. They were given the swords as the police because people have weapons. They were sent to arrest. The Talmud actually lays it out very insistently. It wasn’t a one day thing as a skirmish, brawl and sword fight. They were criminal proceedings which lasted for several months. The perpetrators, the leaders of the perpetrators, those who encouraged people to do this idol worship and orgies in front of the golden calf were brought to justice and executed so that the evil would not spread in Israel. So it was a strict theocratic state.

Beerman:

With both moral and civil overtones really. Here God is setting in order His kingdom in a sense, His kingdom of priests.

Bolotnikov:

I am saying this, because we know that under the new covenant we do not have a theocratic state.

Beerman:

That is right. That is the huge distinction. This is contained to a particular group of people in a particular historical situation and does not apply in a same sense…

Bolotnikov:

Yes, under the old covenant, the enforcement through the theocracy. In the medieval time, the church tried to establish a theocracy, and God wasn’t happy with that.

Beerman:

Wasn’t happy with that, because it wasn’t really that.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, but on the other hand, it does not mean that the laws are now gone away. I just want to make this strict distinction, because the removal of law enforcement does not mean that you do not have laws. There are some towns in the United States with only one police officer. This does not mean, “Oh, since there are no police, I can walk in and do whatever I want there.”

Beerman:

There has to be moral order.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, there has to be, and I know many communities that are very strict here, maintaining within themselves this order, and they are safe communities, regardless of the fact that there is no huge police presence there.

Beerman:

That is right, and of course we would not want to translate what we have here (in this Parashat) straight over into the United States of America. We do not have a theocracy here. We cannot do that kind of a thing.

A practical question rises out of this. It seems in a sense trivial to us, and I understand there was a process of prosecuting someone who violated one of these laws, but let’s just take starting a fire on Sabbath. For me, I can go out and chop a piece of wood, and in about five minutes, I can build a fire. There’s not a lot of work there, and so it seems when we look at the context that I might ask, “Do we have a picky God? What would be the context of building the fire in the desert? Why was that considered work?

Bolotnikov:

This is really a serious question because at one end we have a commandment, “Rest.” What is that supposed to mean?  

It is interesting that this question was debated in Judaism many times. For example, Jewish tradition in the 1st century in pre-rabbinic times asked this question, and basically during the time of Pharisees they came out with a list of 39 types of jobs that are not allowed in Sabbath. The way they did it: They went through the construction of the sanctuary, and they determined that these are the works that were done at the construction of the sanctuary. This is how they laid it out.

But the big problem is that you have a thinking back in the legal mind of rabbinic Judaism. That thinking is called ‘making a fence around the Torah.’ In other words, they laid out the major check lists of what you are not supposed to do, which kind of determines, “Okay, this is work, so not doing this constitutes rest.” So it is a very legally constructed approach. So the fence around the Torah is, “We cannot do this. Let’s see that we wouldn’t even have a temptation to do this. There were all kinds of additional things. I will give you a simple example. It says, “You can’t carry burdens.” So you do not transfer objects (this is how they understood) from your house into the street. So they come up with additional rules so you cannot transfer. For example, in the Mishnah it says, “If you have a camel, and you need to give this camel water (which is not work) just make sure that the camel has his front leg and hind leg standing inside your yard, otherwise if his hind leg is in the street, it will be transferring an object. This is definitely shows some particularity. They are exemplifying. So with the lighting of the fire, the modern Orthodox Judaism is extremely strict.

Beerman:

I guess turn on electricity or starting the car.

Bolotnikov:

Starting the car definitely is. Turn the ignition, and here you are. You have a fire going in your cylinders, although I always wondered. It says, “in your residence.” So if the car is on the street, why can’t you start it? But the main thing is what they had to decide in the late 1800s when electricity became popular. They went, and they made a specific legal decision that electricity going over the wires is equal to fire, and that is where the light switch, phone, anything is out now. Basically, you can’t touch the button.

Beerman:

From a moral standpoint today, in terms of application, what is the principle here? Many Christians view this as rather severe, exaggerated. This law doesn’t make any sense. What are we supposed to do with it? What was Jesus approach to this essentially?

Bolotnikov:

Jesus approach is very clear. The Sabbath is for man. In other words, we don’t make Sabbath a burden. This approach is actually in the book of Isaiah, “If you withhold your foot from doing you own things on Sabbath and make Sabbath a delight.” That’s the principle outlined in Isaiah, and Jesus, of course, did it. We look at Jesus: How he attended the synagogues on Sabbath; how he participated in the service. He definitely didn’t work on Shabbat, because even at His death, His disciples did not want to perform the anointing of the body, so they laid the body, and then they would come back. So they did follow the Sabbath. Here somebody died in the Middle East. You’ve got to bury the body, you’ve got to anoint and give it to the grave. No? On the other hand with the healing on Sabbath.

Beerman:

Yes, he did. Very redemptive. Rest would tie into that.

Bolotnikov:

So you have this balance. Jesus actually gives us an example. A dead body is a dead body, so it can wait there. Nothing was going to happen, so they waited. But a person who is sick and suffering, Jesus went up and healed him. So we have this balanced approach, spiritual approach.

Beerman:

And we see that consistently, throughout the New Testament, don’t we?

Just in the moments that we have left here, in this section Exodus 35 through 38, there is a lot of detail—about articles for the tabernacle; the artisans Bezaliel; they began to build the sanctuary. Lot of detail in this particular section, particularly the Ark. (It’s just fascinating.) Every detail of all this has a relevant meaning today. How deep do we go into this, applications and interpretations. Are these symbolic? How do we deal of these?

Bolotnikov:

That is a very important statement you are making, Stan, about the attempt to interpret every single detail. People think, “Oh everything needs to mean something in the spiritual realm, and that is where people go into allegory. Let me tell you, in relation to the Sabbath, that is exactly the opposite extreme which the Christians took.

The Jews took sometimes a very legalistic approach. We have even the Karaite which is an offshoot of Judaism. What they literally do is on Friday afternoon they will have their service, and before sundown they run home, they lay down on their bed, and they do not get up from their bed until sundown, just to do no work. That is extreme legalism, but on the other hand, we have extreme allegorization of the word of God. “Oh Sabbath is a symbol.” There was this fake epistle. An imposter poses as Barnabas and says, “Oh, Jews are so stupid, God gave the Sabbath as a symbol of the second coming, and therefore they started keeping it.” So this allegorical approach is a big problem.

Beerman:

It takes the moral aspect completely out of it really, doesn’t it? Spiritualizes it, kind of makes it less tangible.

Bolotnikov:

This is exactly the Greek philosophical approach—Plato—this allegorical view of things…

Beerman:

Kind of rationalistic logical…

Bolotnikov:

Yes, that is rationalistic and logical because going back you look at the sticks, you look at the boards, and you look at all the rings and hooks. They are functional. They are rings and hooks. What is the problem? They do not have to have some kind of spiritual meaning, and it does not have to be an exact copy of what is it in heaven.

Beerman:

So there is a real danger. You can go in the ditch on either side. Over literalistic, legalistic, or the other hand of it which is allegorical and just symbolic. That just wipes out the principle.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, spiritualizing all of this leads people to understand that there’s no sanctuary in heaven. It is interesting that Jews do believe in the heavenly temple, whereas many Christians they think that it is just an allegory. There is no heavenly abode where God dwells in heaven, in spite of the fact that we do have a clear description in the book of Revelation.

Beerman:

Yes, we went over that in some detail last time. The book the Hebrews bears this all out as well.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, that is why we say, “What kind of materials are used in heaven? I don’t know. Heavenly materials.

Beerman:

Wow, this is helpful, Sasha. Jesus example, “Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” as well some of the other applications have been very, very helpful today.


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