Parshat Vayakhel: Meaningful Work

Work is a central theme in parshat Vayakhel’s description of the building/making of the mishkan and the objects within it. This work is referred to mainly as “melakha,” and sometimes as “avodah.” What do these different Hebrew words for work connote and how can this relate to our own work or daily tasks today?

The word melakha which features prominently in Vayakhel, is also a keyword in Bereshit, where God’s “work” – the creation of the world – is called melakha. Another parallel: Both the work of creation and the mishkan cease for Shabbat. Also, the archetype for “work” which is not permitted on Shabbat (the 39 melakhot) is derived in the midrash Mekhilta from the repetition of the command to keep Shabbat in parshat Vayakhel. These parallels suggest that melakha is a type of work which consists of creativity, ingenuity and beauty, such as in God’s creation of the world and in humankind’s ability to create in this world (ie. the mishkan). The word avodah however, has a different connotation. It is used in the decription of the work the Jews did as slaves in Egypt. Moreover, it is also used in rabbinic literature to refer to serving God through either sacrifices or prayer. 

The commentaries question why the work in the mishkan is referred to as both melakha and avodah? The Kil Yakar comments: The word avodah, which connotes serving one’s Master, is used to describe the humbling work of serving God. Melakha, however, is the work which connects heaven and earth, which empowers human creativity in the Divine image of the ultimate creation, the world. Human work contains both aspects.

Work can feel like an obligation or service. But it can also be an expression of creativity, innovation and passion. May we find ways to imbue daily tasks with meaning, while also bringing out our passions and creativity. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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