In memory of my dear friend Mr. Yoel Intract, z.l., of Jerusalem.
There is no stronger reminder of the holiness of the Shabbath than the categorical imperative not to violate this day while building the Tabernacle and later the Temple. While the children of Israel are commanded to build this most sacred place on earth symbolizing the encounter between God and man, God makes it clear that the Shabbath is still not to be violated. There is a need to stop this holy work, even in the middle, to make space for this holy day: It is more holy than the Tabernacle and (later) the Temple:
“But (“Ach”) My Shabbatot you shall keep. For that is a sign between Me and you throughout the generations that you may know that I, God, sanctify you” (Shemot 31:13).
Ramban, however points out that the word “but” (“ach”) also alludes to the fact that, in accordance with Talmudic tradition, this word means: With the exception of certain cases, you shall always observe the Shabbath. The most famous case of such an exception is the one related to saving human life on the Shabbath. When human life (Jew or non-Jew) is in danger, the law actually requires the violation of the Shabbath so as to save this life even when it would be for only a few more minutes. Failure to do so would be a clear transgression of God’s Torah.
From this we learn two important facts: The Shabbath is more holy than the Tabernacle and human life is more holy than the Shabbath.
We may suggest a most novel interpretation: God seems to be saying: Do you know why I gave you the Tabernacle and the institution of the Shabbath? You may think that they are the supreme manifestations of holiness in the world. But they are not! What I am trying to teach you is that there is one other manifestation of holiness that surpasses the holiness of the Tabernacle and of the Shabbath. And that is human life.
This, says God, is the reason why I first introduced you to the Tabernacle. No doubt you must have thought that there can’t be a more exalted form of holiness than the Tabernacle-Temple. After all, it is there that man and God can “meet” as nowhere else. I even told you that this place is so holy that only the High Priest on Yom Kippur would be allowed to enter the Tabernacle’s most sanctified inner spot, the Holy of Holiness. And when he would fail to live up to its supreme holiness, it could become the place of his undoing. The holiness of the Tabernacle would be so overwhelming that it would cause him to collapse. So what can be more holy?
And still, there is an even greater form of holiness: Not the holiness of space but as Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested, but the holiness of time: The Shabbath. You must observe the Shabbath even when you are building the Tabernacle. So how holy is the Shabbath? Holier than the Holy of Holiness! Now, no doubt, you must have concluded that nothing can be more holy than that! The Shabbath! And again I, God, must warn you, that you are mistaken. There is something even more holy: The life of Man. Not only will the holiness of the Tabernacle have to make space for the holiness of the Shabbath, but the Shabbath has to give way for the holiness of human life. Only when you have reached the sanctity of human life have you reached the supreme unchallenged manifestation of holiness. There is no greater holiness than that. And now, as a result, you are able to understand why I commanded you that while building the Tabernacle you will have to observe the Shabbath: “So that you may know that I sanctify YOU” (Shemoth 31:13). Not the Shabbath, but YOU!
How else, after all, could I have made you aware of man’s unchallenged supreme holiness? This is only possible when I first introduce you to what you would have thought to be the peak of holiness: The Tabernacle, and afterwards to the even greater holiness of the Shabbath. Only then are you able to grasp the ultimate manifestation of holiness: The sanctity of the life of man.
And this is the reason why I asked you to build Me a Tabernacle and observe the Shabbath. The main reason for these “institutions” is not that they themselves merely need to be observed, but to teach you one unequaled lesson: The unparalleled holiness of you and your fellow man!
At the same time, you should know that it is only through your observing the Shabbath that you will be able to grasp the unprecedented holiness of human life. Just as it is possible to violate the holiness of this day with what you believe to be a single, minor, or trivial act (such as lighting a candle), so could you violate a fellow man’s holiness and kavod (respect) by one “insignificant,” “trivial” wrong. Just one slightly unpleasant and unnecessary word may be all that’s needed to cause irreparable damage to another person.