Vayakhel begins on a confusing note:
Now Moses assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. For six days work is to be done, but on the seventh day, it will be holy for you, a Sabbath of complete rest for the Lord; all who do work on it shall be put to death. Do not kindle any fire throughout your settlements on the day of the Sabbath. (Exodus 35:1-3)
Anything here strike you as peculiar? More than one commentator has pointed out that Moses tells the Israelites, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do…” and then proceeds with the mitzvah of shabbat, whose primary observance is not doing: shabbat menuchah (sabbath rest) is the crux of keeping shabbat. We are we commanded to not do. (This reminds me of the irony of the commandment to remember to wipe out the name of Amalek.)
It’s no longer news that we live in a 24/7 world, continuously plugged in via cell phones, iPads, and laptops. The boundary between work and home life is obscured by our connectivity, and email follows us on our smart phones. I recently heard about a group of 20-something friends who meet regularly at a restaurant for dinner. They put their cell phones in the middle of the table and the first to touch his or her phone picks up the tab for everyone at the table. I wondered: why not just put the phone away for two hours? The answer is obvious: if they feel it vibrate, it’s hard to resist checking for a call or a text. How many of us can’t unplug?
We are workaholics. We’re often exhausted, but we are imbued with the sense that all our emails, texts, postings, writings, reports, reviews and all the rest are critically important.
Are all the things we do of earth-shattering importance? The answer is both yes and no. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke (19th century) told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha'olam / For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "Ani eifer v'afar / I am but dust and ashes." Rabbi Simcha Bunem’s prescription for emotional balance works well for our efforts to achieve balance between work and rest: In the one pocket is the message that says that our work is very important and we do make a difference in the world. In the other pocket is a message that says the world will keep spinning if we let email and projects sit for a day, and take time away from our gadgets to spend with our loved ones, with God, and with our own thoughts.
Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited.” Imagination is rooted in the soul and rest nourishes the soul. Every athlete knows that you have to take rest days to allow your muscles — broken down by strenuous exercise — to rebuild. The soul is no different. Perhaps that is what the Rabbis had in mind when they taught that we are given a neshamah yeteirah / an additional soul on shabbat (B.Beitzah 16a, B.Ta’anit 27b). It’s tough to focus on that part of our being during the week; we need to take time off to appreciate our innermost selves.
The Sages taught that there are five different names for the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida. Rav Sadya Gaon, living in the tenth century, understood this at face value: there are five different terms that refer to the soul. But the Kabbalists understood the five terms to allude to five levels of self-awareness that a person can achieve, the highest being yechida (union, or communion). This is the highest level of self-awareness. To achieve that we need to turn off the gadgets and white noise and dig deep within.
The Kiddush we recite on Friday evening tells us that Shabbat is a commemoration of creation, which culminated with the first shabbat (Genesis chapter 1), and the Exodus from slavery in Egypt where we had no rest. The Kiddush for Shabbat morning includes these words from Torah:
Remember to make the day of Shabbat holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God; on it you shall not do any work — you, your son and your daughter, your male and female servant, your cattle, or the stranger who is among you — for in six days Adonai made the heavens, the earth and the sea, and all they contain, and rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
In the ancient world, Greeks and Romans scoffed at Jews for being lazy and slothful because their religion decreed that they were forbidden from working and required to rest. But note that the prohibition is not for us alone; it’s for everyone: children, servants, strangers in our midst, and even animals! What a gloriously civilized idea: no one should be a slave; everyone is entitled to rest and to renew themselves. What a wonderful expression of respect for human and animal life this is!
Shabbat can be magic time when we attune ourselves to its rhythm. Shabbat happens according to the clock of the world, not our mechanical timepieces. The sun sets; the stars appear. Rather than creating and changing the world, we step back and appreciate the world and our blessings. We make time for self-review: what are we doing with our time, with our lives, with our energy? We take time to think our own thoughts, unprompted by TV, newspapers, and commentators. We can enjoy the unencumbered company of family and friends, with no other agenda beyond love and joy. Our souls hunger for this.
Do we really need to be commanded to rest? The answer to the irony that what we are commanded to do is not do is that it’s very difficult for us to slow down, let alone stop and rest. We don’t know how to do it. What is more, as Judith Shulevit, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, suggests, imposing some structure helps:
Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.
There is a nice forum in The Chronicle for HigherEducation in which a number of university professors — Jewish and Christian — share their struggles and views on the notion of a day of rest.
There are many ways to create shabbat for yourself and your family and friends. Here are more approaches. Find what works for you.
The internet is rife with commentaries that can spark great table conversation.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel likened shabbat to a cathedral in time, an indestructible Holy of Holies. As much as our actions can be sacred, so too our rest.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman