In Exodus 35, Moses relays God’s commandment to build the tabernacle to Israel. Before Moses actually tells the people about the tabernacle he tells them about the Sabbath. He tells them that work is not to be done on Sabbath and that they cannot kindle fire on that holy day. Only then does Moses tell them about the building of the tabernacle.
Why is this introduction necessary? Why does Israel need to hear about the importance of Sabbath before they hear about the command to build the tabernacle? And why is the prohibition against making a fire singled out from amongst all the prohibited forms of work?
Perhaps we can understand these introductory commandments when we consider the purpose of the tabernacle.
The tabernacle was to be a sanctuary in the realm of space. Israel was going to close off a certain area, fill it with their expression of obedience to God’s explicit and detailed instructions, and that place will then become a sanctuary for God’s holiness.
We can so easily fall into the trap of thinking that we have generated our own holiness. We can convince ourselves that we took this dark and desolate place and transformed it into a place of light and holiness. We can believe that it was we who created an island of sanctity and purity in a mundane and desecrated world.
Sabbath sets us right. Sabbath reminds us that the world that God created was very good. It was filled with holiness and sanctity. It is only the negative activities of man that violated the pure and holy world that God created. We are not creating anything new with the building of the sanctuary. We are just peeling back the layers of sin and disobedience so that the holiness of God that is inherent in creation can shine through.
Sabbath is a day when we don’t try to change anything. We take the world where it stands and focus on the purpose for which it was created. We reconnect to the original plan of creation which has man basking in the radiance of God’s all-encompassing kindness.
Creating fire is the one act that most directly transforms the realm of space. A fire has the power to turn an area which was cold, dark and inhospitable into an illuminated, warm and inviting place. As such, fire represents man’s ability to affect and to transform the world we live in. But Sabbath is not a day for transforming and changing. Sabbath is the day to remind ourselves that God is the ultimate and the only Creator. All that remains for us to do is to let in the light and the holiness of God that is inherent in the very fabric of existence.