It is a day after Yom Kippur, two months after the Sin of the Calf. Moshe descends (the second time) from Mount Sinai and convenes the People of Israel:
And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them.’ (Shemot 35, 1)
This is an assembly of the entire congregation – women, men and children. The purpose of this assembly is to give the People two commandments: the Shabbat and the Mishkan (the building of the tabernacle). Why does the entire congregation need to be brought together for these two commandments?
The Hebrew word for assembly used in our parasha is הקהל. This word is familiar to us from two places in the Torah. One is the actual commandment of הקהל in Devarim, the assembly of the People once every seven years for a public reading of the Torah during the festival of Sukkot. The second is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Horev). The two are connected; the commandment of הקהל every seven years is there to remind us of the original covenant with God in Sinai. (Incidentally, the verb is also used in Megillat Esther, when the Jews of ancient Persia assembled to fight their enemies. The Midrash that says that the Jews in the days of Esther have accepted the Torah a second time, hence the assembly).
Ramban explains that the Mishkan was a continuation of the giving of the Torah in Sinai, to build a place for God to dwell within us. If this is the case, we can now understand why the commandment of erecting the tabernacle (Mishkan) needed an assembly of all the People. Just as all the people were assembled under Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, so they needed to be reassembled to be told to build the continuation of the covenant, the Mishkan.
What about the second commandment given in the הקהל, the Shabbat? The known explanation is that the Shabbat and the Mishkan are related because we learn which actions are prohibited on Shabbat by looking at which activities were performed in the building of the tabernacle. But there is a deeper connection. The Mishkan symbolises the sanctification of a physical place. Shabbat symbolises the sanctification of a specific period in time. Both place and time were created by God, and He commands us to sanctify both. This sanctification needs to be done by the entire People; it is not enough that only some keep the Shabbat, or only some build the tabernacle. This is why there is an assembly of the entire People for both commandments.
Going back to the connection between Shabbat and the Mishkan, there is a story that illustrates the significance of this connection.
A famous rabbi was invited to speak to a thriving Jewish community in a big city in Europe. Before his speech, the community’s president took the rabbi to the side and advised him about the importance of not offending the important people in this community. “What are you planning to speak about?”, he asked the rabbi. “Shabbat”, came the reply. The president shook his head: “Oh no, don’t speak about Shabbat. Hardly anyone here keeps Shabbat.” So the rabbi said, “Ok, so kashrut (Jewish dietary laws)”. Again the president shook his head: “We don’t have a single kosher butcher in this city”. “How about tzedaka (charity)”, offered the rabbi. “Give me a break”, said the president, “we have too many people pestering us for money as it is”. The rabbi was perplexed. “So if I can’t talk about Shabbat or kashrut or tzedaka, what is it that you want me to talk about?”. Without flinching the president replied: “Why, rabbi. About Judaism!”.
By placing the Shabbat with (and before) the Mishkan, the Torah tells us that although we may build beautiful edifices to serve God, these constructions have no value if we forget the basic tenets of our faith. If we forget Shabbat, kashrut, tzedaka – we can build the most magnificent buildings to serve God but these will have no significance. This is also illustrated in the money used for the adanim, the foundations of the Mishkan. Unlike all other parts of the Mishkan, for which money was collected in the form of donations, the adanim were built using the mandatory machazit hashekel (half shekel) “tax” that every person had to pay. Only after building foundations based on the obligations of the faith can one move on to the next level and expand based on his free will.