Positive vs negative. We need both, according to the markings on my batteries, but in general, we tend to agree that the positive is more…well, positive. “A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in results.” (Bennett Cerf…and if you don’t know who he was, you’re younger than I am.)
This week’s double parasha, Vayak’hel/Pikudei, seems to be just a restatement of all the details that went into building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, and making it fully operational. Mostly, that’s true. But hidden in the blueprints are a few other ideas. One is at the beginning of Vayak’hel. Moses is telling the whole Israelite community about Shabbat, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai….You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day” (Ex 35:2-3)
The other has to do with the High Priests’ clothing. In the description in Ex 39:2 we read of the special clothes Aaron needed for officiating in the sanctuary, “The ephod (sort of a tunic) was made of gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen”. So what? Well, the yarn/linen thing sort of jumps out if you’re aware of a Biblical injunction about clothes design: shatnez. (Not a typo about Capt. Kirk) Shatnez says we shouldn’t mix wool and linen in a garment. Ever. It comes from Torah sections that also state negative commandments about mixing animal species and growing different kinds of crops at the same time. Don’t do it.
But there’s that pesky text in chapter 39, specifically saying that the High Priests’s ephod was made of yarn (that’s woven) and linen (that’s the linen). So what do we make of this? Well, we go to the commentators, and several referred to a Talmudic principle that states a positive commandment takes precedence over a negative one; i.e. “thou shalts” win over “thou shalt nots.” Different rabbis had different reasons, but many agreed on this principle.
So, the commandment of the High Priest clothing, to wear these remarkable and special outfits while performing their duties wins out over what to make the clothes out of so that they can fulfill those duties. Priests don’t have to follow that one, but only as regards their work clothes.
Going back to the Shabbat text at the beginning – don’t kindle a fire – brings to mind this same positive-over-negative principle. We are supposed to enjoy Shabbat. Positive. We are not supposed to kindle a fire. Negative. Now, I’m not in a position to “rule” on contemporary Jewish practice, and as a post-modern, non-Orthodox Jew, I do not look to Orthodox or traditional authority in determining my Shabbat practice, anyway. This is not a Talmudic exercise.
Rather, it is my hope that recognizing that there is a positive commandment to enjoy Shabbat, to make it as special and rejuvenating (re-Jew-venating?) and as appealing as it can be should be able to knock down barriers for those who aren’t bringing Shabbat into their lives for fear of doing it “wrong.” Don’t worry about the “wrong” way to do Shabbat. Find something unique and beautiful and different on your Friday nights and welcome that energy into your heart and home. Explore what it’s like to do something different on Saturday because it’s Shabbat, as opposed to Sunday, which isn’t.
This is the fire to kindle: the warm glow of candles, the sweetness of challah, the taste of the wine, and anything else you do on Friday night after that will feel different, I promise.
By the way, this parasha ends the book of Exodus, and we move into Leviticus…that’ll be a party! No really. But at the end of a Torah book, we say, “Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazek”….Strength, strength, may we be strengthened. Considering we’re three weeks out from Passover, I need all the strength I can get! But also, we are about to find out what it takes to live in the wilderness and create a brand new society. That’ll take some strength, you bet.