If you build it, celebrate Shabbat first


This week’s Torah portion is Vayak’hel: Exodus 35:1-38:20.

In 1989. the movie “Field of Dreams” came to theaters to the delight of baseball fans and congregational fundraisers. Early in the story, Ray Kinsella, a corn farmer, hears a voice while walking through his fields, “If you build it, he will come.”
Ray builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his field where long-deceased players, some of whom had been denied the chance to play because of racial inequality, gather to fulfill their dreams.

Directors of philanthropy and congregational fundraisers can oft times be heard invoking the most famous line of this movie — in their slightly amended words, “If we build it, they will come!”

This trope has inspired many communities to create beautiful buildings in the hopes that they will attract new members as well as keep existing ones “in the game.”


This week’s parshah is also about creating a beautiful and meaningful place. In Exodus 35 through 38 we read an extensive description of the mishkan, the sacred place of assembly, or tabernacle, used by our people during the time that they wandered in the desert. The overseers of this project are the gifted artisans Bezalel and Ohaliav. Like Ray Kinsella, they have a vision of how to create a special and meaningful place.

But our Torah portion takes a different approach to its establishment of the Israelites’ desert sanctuary than “Field of Dreams” takes to creating the baseball diamond. Before building the tabernacle, where the people will gather to observe Shabbat and other festivals, our traditions asks us to experience sacred time and only afterward to create sacred space.

Before asking the people to bring their generous, heartfelt donations to the building site, Moses reminds them of the commandment to observe Shabbat. In Exodus 35:2 we read, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal.”

In his transformative book “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that sacred time precedes sacred space. He writes, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

With our parshah and Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom, we learn that a community cannot create sacred space until it understands the role of the sacred in the world in its purest sense — undistracted by physical objects. Shabbat at its core connects with the sacred through relationship and ritual, through speech and study, through thought and love, respect and deeds of kindness. Only when we embrace these divine experiences on their own, can we embed them into our sacred spaces.

“If you experience the sacred, you can build the sacred,” and while the building may be beautiful, it is the holiness of Shabbat itself that ensures that “they will come.”

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman is senior rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.


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