Zeal, Tzitzit, Knowledge, and Humility

Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

Although Parashat Vayakhel is almost entirely focused on the construction of the Tabernacle it begins by reminding the Children of Israel that no work may be done on the Sabbath. Why does it begin here, rather than jumping right into how the Tabernacle was constructed? As we have previously mentioned, placing the topic of the Sabbath against the construction of the Tabernacle  was God’s way of defining the boundaries of the Sabbath. However, there is another layer to understanding this point and it actually connects back to the golden calf.

As we know, while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, the Children of Israel decided to make a golden calf to worship. Why did they do this? Was it simply that they had quickly given up on the God who had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh and they decided to return to the pagan deities of Egypt? No. In their zeal to worship their Deliverer they did so in a way they were most familiar. They instinctively used their most precious resources to create something they believed would connect them to the LORD. 

After creating the idol they said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exodus 32:5). But what they created was not what Hashem wanted. He wanted them to create the Tabernacle to serve as the connection between Heaven and Earth, not a golden calf. After this incident of the golden calf the LORD had to constantly remind them, “These are the things the LORD has commanded.” Even though they had a spiritual zeal that desired to serve Hashem wholeheartedly, it was misguided and needed proper direction.

Another example of misguided zeal happed with King Uzziah. In 2 Chronicles 26, King Uzziah was so thankful to Hashem for all He had done for him that he wanted to personally offer incense inside the sanctuary. But in this instance, the Scriptures describe Uzziah by saying, “he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Even though he was zealous, because it was misguided it was considered “unfaithful.” And although the priests warned him about this he persisted and offered the incense anyway. The results was that he was stricken with tzara’at (biblical leprosy) and never recovered.

Our parashah begins with the boundaries of Shabbat to remind us that even when we are doing something that is for the LORD it has to be within the proper boundaries. Even though God is instructing His people to build something for Him, they must not do so on Shabbat. Many times, in our zeal to serve Hashem, we overstep the boundaries that the LORD has established simply because of our lack of knowledge or misunderstanding. Although we don’t need to wait to perform a mitzvah until we have complete knowledge of its details, we need to at least preface it with some knowledge of its boundaries.

An example of this is in our day is tzitziyot, the ritual fringes that Hashem commands all Jewish males to wear on the four corners of their garments (Numbers 15:37–41; Deuteronomy 22:12). Many people who begin learning that the Torah is still applicable today begin wearing tzitziyot out of their zeal to obey God’s instructions. However, in their zeal they fail to learn the details of how they are to be made and worn. They are usually made out of the wrong material, are dyed with the wrong color, and then attached in a manner that is incorrect and disrespectful. Are they doing this as an act of rebellion? Usually not. Most of the time they are genuinely trying to fulfill the commandment. But in their zeal the they have done so in their own way, rather than the way Hashem has instructed.

It would have been easy for the Israelites to think that building the Tabernacle (i.e. doing the work of God) would take precedent over guarding the Shabbat. Therefore, God included His warning to guard the Shabbat as His final word of instruction concerning the Tabernacle. Hashem desires that His people serve Him with zeal. But zeal without knowledge can sometimes be more destructive than beneficial. By giving the Israelites instructions about the Shabbat before they began working on the Tabernacle, the LORD was telling his people that even in doing what He has instructed us there are boundaries that we must abide by. In order for our spiritual labors to be accepted by the One whom we are doing them for, sometimes we must temper our zeal with knowledge and humility.