|It has been our conviction, as stated in many of our other essays, that an unfaltering commitment towards human dignity is the foundation stone of Judaism. This is normally understood to mean that since Judaism includes many commandments in which man is asked to uphold and guarantee the dignity of his fellowman, it emphasizes God’s love and respect for man as one of the highest values.|
A careful reading of a comment made by Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer 1762-1839, Hungary) seems, however, to suggest a completely different and most unique interpretation of the above.
In the book of Shemoth (31:13) we are reminded of one of the most important laws regulating man’s relationship to God: The institution of the Shabbath rest. This law, as no other, reflects man’s obligation towards his God. Man is asked to suspend his dominion over the world (by withdrawing from work) and give evidence that all of creation belongs to its Creator including man himself.
Before introducing the commandments related to the building of the Tabernacle, (and later, the Temple) God tells Moshe: “But (“Ach”) my Shabbatoth you shall keep. For that is a sign between Me and you throughout the generations that you may know that I, God, sanctify you.” Ramban, unlike Rashi, points out that the word, “But” (“Ach”), limits the need to observe the Shabbath and teaches us that in certain cases one should violate Shabbath. This is due to the fact that the Hebrew expression “ach” in Talmudic tradition always limits a general rule stated in the same verse. A more correct translation therefore should be: “But, with certain exceptions, you shall keep My Shabbatoth. The most famous case of such an exception is the one related to saving human life on Shabbath. When a human being’s life is in danger, the law requires the actual violation of Shabbath so as to save this life. Failure to do so would be a clear transgression of God’s Torah.
At the same time we also know that it is forbidden to build the Tabernacle on Shabbath. This, according to Ramban, is learned from the fact that the Torah first discusses the importance of observing the Shabbath and only then goes on to discuss the way in which the Tabernacle needs to be built.
Because of this Chatam Sofer concludes that although the Mishkan is of tremendous importance and holiness (the symbol of God’s indwelling in this world “holiness in space”), the institution of Shabbath, “holiness in time,” is even greater and, therefore, more holy. However, since we are obligated to violate the Shabbath so as to save somebody’s life, we see that human life is holier than Shabbath and the Tabernacle.
We may suggest a most novel interpretation: God seems to say to man: Do you know why I gave you a Tabernacle and the institution of the Shabbath? This is not because they are a goal in themselves and to teach how holy they are but so as to teach you how holy you are! This is clearly the meaning of the end of the verse: “so that you shall know that I have sanctified you!” Without the instruction to build the Tabernacle and the commandment concerning the need to observe Shabbath, man would never have known how holy he actually is! More holy than the Tabernacle or the Shabbath!
This then opens a new perspective: The supreme goal of those laws which regulate and inspire man to relate to God and to give evidence to His ultimate authority is to teach man to realize his own holiness and that of his neighbor. This, we believe, is a completely new way to grasp the Jewish traditional teachings concerning the dignity of man.