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Vayakhel 5777 / 25 March 2017

March 30, 2017

If you took a time machine back to the first century and took a poll of average Romans on the street to find out what they know about Jews, Shabbat — along with kashrut and brit milah — would be right at the top.[1] Throughout history, Shabbat has remained a central feature of Jewish life, from comedy films about bowling to real-life day school basketball teams willing to forfeit a state championship rather than play on a Friday night. In one cartoon that I love, we see a Hasid walking down the street talking on a cell phone, with a caption that reads: “Remember, if you need anything I’m available 24/6.”

At the same time, Shabbat presents us with a puzzle: the mitzvah to refrain from work appears eight different times in the Torah,[2] but we hear little else about its observance. The Rabbis of the Talmud, aware of their role in fleshing out the halakhot, referred to Shabbat as “a mountain hanging by a hair.”[3] Where does Shabbat come from, and what is the point of it all? Parashat Vayakhel holds the key to understanding Shabbat — but first, a trip back to the very beginning.

The first creation story in Genesis presents several problems for interpretation; one of the thorniest comes at the very end, in the Torah’s depiction of the seventh day. The middle verse of this passage contains the essential paradox: וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, “God completed on the seventh day the work that [God] had done,”  וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָֽׂה, “And [God] rested on the seventh day from all the work [God] had done.”[4] Which is it? Did God complete the work? Or did God rest from the work? Many commentaries insist that God only rested, and performed no work, on this day — but their position forces them into logical contortions to explain וַיְכַל, that God completed the work on this day.[5] If, instead, we try to split the difference and say that God both worked and rested at different points in the day, why doesn’t the Torah inform us of what God made as we find on the other days?

Here it is helpful to remember that the chapter numbering in our humashim originates with medieval Christian monks, and appears in our bibles for ease of citation; in ancient times, Jews cited the Torah by parshah and aliyah, divisions that reflect a Jewish understanding of the text. In this case, the slight difference between these systems bears deep significance. According to the Christian understanding, we start a new chapter here because the days of active creation have ended and the seventh day, Shabbat, constitutes something altogether different. The Jewish reader, however, puts the aliyah break after these three verses — indicating that, in Judaism’s eyes, the seventh day is part and parcel of God’s creation. Thus Rashi suggests that God did, in fact, create something on the seventh day. In his view, God’s resting was itself an act of creation: in deliberately ceasing labor and delineating a space for reflective non-work, God completed all the other acts of creation. Material creation, the stuff of the prior six days, appeared complete in its outward presentation but still lacked one essential quality that emerged with God’s decision to rest on Shabbat.[6] 

What kind of rest do we find in this passage? We shouldn’t imagine God as some kind of weary laborer, flopping down on the couch at night with a cold one. God doesn’t get tired, and Creation required no exertion on God’s part.[7] Instead, we need to distinguish between two different classes of rest. Ordinary rest is what I feel at the end of each day: I’m tired, exhausted even, and need sleep to recharge my body. We all know this feeling; many of us also know a very different kind of rest, one that arises not because we need it, but because we want it: a restorative, mindful rest that allows us to reflect upon our accomplishments. We take this second type of rest when we want to savor the feeling of completion: when we’ve finished something of value, after we’ve poured our souls into creating something that reflects our passions and talents.[8] This deliberate rest requires a conscious choice. Nothing compels this kind of rest in the way that our bodies eventually force ordinary rest upon us, just as nothing could compel God to rest at the end of Creation. Deliberate rest presents an opportunity to consider the significance of our work, if we choose to exercise that option.

The Torah’s presentation of Shabbat underscores the intrinsic link between meaningful work and deliberate rest. Every injunction to rest on Shabbat includes an explicit reference to the “six days of labor.”[9] Rather than understanding Shabbat as the antithesis of creative work, the Torah wants us to see that deliberate rest plays a crucial role in any constructive labor.[10] One late commentary describes the relationship between Shabbat and weekdays as דבר המעמיד — literally, a coagulant — the catalyst that binds other disparate things together.[11] Without Shabbat, the argument goes, the rest of Creation lacks coherence. The Torah’s narrative backs up this bold claim: before the first Shabbat, each day of Creation stands on its own; we see no signs of interaction between the cosmic, terrestrial, plant, animal, and human domains. Once the Torah describes the initial Shabbat of Creation, we immediately see a world we recognize: rain falls on growing plants, humans encounter animals, seasons come and go as time moves inexorably forward. Shabbat — God’s deliberate rest and reflection on what was created — brings these things together.

What about Shabbat allows it to serve as the bond holding together the material world? Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, one of the 20th century’s greatest Jewish thinkers, notes that the concept of holiness, קדושה, appears for the very first time in the Torah’s description of Shabbat: וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”[12] Until this point, all we have are the physical structures of Creation; Shabbat introduces the spiritual dimension. The heavens and the earth and all they contain had existence, but they lacked meaning. Shabbat’s holiness invests the material world with purpose, a justification for the fact of its existence.[13] 

The same holds true for our creative efforts. We are capable of essentially nonstop labor; left to our own devices, we could work without interruption. Absent a structure that challenges us to take deliberate rest, we would rarely stop to reflect on our activity. Today’s always-on, 24/7 lifestyle has almost nothing to do with the latest hot app or social network. The drive to keep working, keep making, is hard-wired into the human condition. Shabbat insists that we stop for a time, shifting our orientation toward life from material to spiritual. As six-day creators, we experience the world — even in our relationships — as potential, the raw material with which we interact, from which we create, the building blocks of an ever-advancing civilization. At rest, on the seventh day, we experience the world as it currently exists, on its own terms. Without the drive to manipulate, modify, and make, we find ourselves receptive to the deeper meaning that lies within the material world.[14] Rather than looking at Shabbat as a rejection of the physical world, we should think of it as a different mode of engagement: Shabbat invites us to see the world and ask why instead of how.

Returning to our parshah, we still face the question of Shabbat as “a mountain hanging by a hair.”[15] The mitzvah of Shabbat here contains the only specific labor the Torah forbids on Shabbat: לֹֽא־תְבַֽעֲרוּ אֵשׁ בְּכֹל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת, “Do not ignite any flame in all your dwellings on the Shabbat day.”[16] All other restricted activities emerge from Rabbinic interpretation: because parashat Vayakhel juxtaposes the mitzvah of Shabbat with the Mishkan’s construction, our Sages inferred that any category of labor involved in constructing the Mishkan must be forbidden on Shabbat.[17] In a revealing allusion, the halakhic term for activities forbidden on Shabbat, מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת, appears only once in the Torah — in this very parshah.[18] 

In its original context, מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת — translated in our Etz Hayyim humash as “designer’s craft” — describes the distinguishing feature of Bezalel’s work, the quality that led to his selection as chief craftsman of the Mishkan. The Hebrew root חשב indicates thinking or contemplation, so we can understand מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת as indicating conscious labor. By “conscious” I mean something more than just that the worker is alert and paying attention to what he is doing; any of us could muster that level of basic awareness. מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת suggests a deeper consciousness, a concern with meaning, the why of the work as well as the how. Anyone can make stuff; it takes a special mindset to create, to make something meaningful, significant, something with purpose. Whether we think of an artist like Rembrandt, an innovator like Thomas Edison, or a technological visionary like Steve Jobs, we intuitively understand the difference between ordinary work and מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת. Indeed, throughout history we find people like Leonardo da Vinci who occupied all of these roles at once — because מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת is an approach to life that transcends any one discipline. 

What about Bezalel, distinct from all other Israelites, allows him to create מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת? The Torah describes him several times as filled with רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, a divine spirit[19] — the same רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים that permeates throughout the world’s Creation.[20] In using the same phrase, the Torah connects Bezalel’s creating the Mishkan with God’s creating the world[21] — and provides a solid foundation for the Rabbis’ deriving the laws of Shabbat from the details of the Mishkan. In order to create the Mishkan as מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת, work full of meaning, Bezalel must also have put his creative activities on hold for Shabbat. God’s deliberate rest infused Creation with meaning, purpose, and holiness, and the same holds true for Bezalel. The essential act that transforms Bezalel’s work into מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת is not anything he did in making the Mishkan, but in his taking a step back for deliberate rest, a restorative act that allows for reflection and develops meaning.

Just as God’s approach to creative work serves as a paradigm for Bezalel’s, Bezalel’s מְלֶאכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת points the way for our own creative endeavors. If we want to make something meaningful — something full of meaning — we need a periodic break to meditate, consider, reflect. Works of enduring value and significance emerge from a creative process that incorporates deliberate rest into the workflow; constant, ceaseless work yields quantity without quality. A rare few people have the discipline to establish patterns of deliberate rest for themselves. Most of us — and I count myself among this group — won’t pull it off on our own. We need structure and support to integrate deliberate rest into our lives.

That is where Shabbat comes in. The Torah’s insistence on a single day, every week, when we switch as a community from creative work to creative rest, helps us take the time we need to discern meaning in the world and in our work. Shabbat as part of a community benefits from each person’s participation; the Shabbat community grows in value as it grows in size. I am thrilled that today is BZBI’s inaugural Shabbat Without Walls. Throughout the day, starting with early-morning runs and meditative walks and continuing with lunch, afternoon activities, and culminating in Havdallah, BZBI members will gather throughout the city to spend Shabbat together. Each participant — the guests as much as the hosts — enriches Shabbat for everyone else. Even on this day of refraining from labor, our deliberate rest serves as an act of creation in adding meaning to our lives and investing our other activities with a sense of purpose and holiness. I bless us all that, even after Shabbat Without Walls concludes and we return to our weekday business, that we will continue to benefit from this day of deliberate rest, and that the feeling we generate today will sustain us until the next Shabbat — just six days away.

[1]        Erich S. Gruen, “Roman Perspectives on the Jews,” in The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology, ed. Andrea M. Berlin and J. Andrew Overman (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 34-37.

[2]        Ex. 16:23-27, 20:8-11, 23:12, 31:12-17, 34:21, 35:1-3; Lev. 23:1-3; Deut. 5:12-15.

[3]        Haggigah 10a-b.

[4]        Gen. 2:2.

[5]        Ibn Ezra (Alternate Version), Gen. 2:2; Hizkuni, Gen. 2:2; Rabbenu Bahya, Gen. 2:2.

[6]        Rashi, Gen. 2:2.

[7]        Radak, Gen. 2:2.

[8]        I have elaborated here on Rashi’s very brief comment to Ex. 31:15.

[9]        See above, n.5.

[10]        Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1951; reprint, New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2000), 28.

[11]        Or HaHayyim, Gen. 2:2.

[12]        Gen. 2:3. The Torah will not speak of holiness again until Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3:5).

[13]        Pahad Yitzhak, Shabbat 1.4.

[14]        Cf. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (1965; reprint, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), 12-14, 22-23.

[15]        Haggigah 10a-b.

[16]        Ex. 35:3.

[17]        Rashi, Beitzah 13b.

[18]        Ex. 35:33.

[19]        Ex. 31:2, 35:31.

[20]        Cf. Gen. 1:2.

[21]        Significantly, in all other places where רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים appears, it refers to prophecy — an interpretation that could, with some flexible interpretation, apply to Bezalel but which Gen. 1:2 can not sustain. If we accept that Creation and the Mishkan use רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים differently than all other passages, it underscores the unique alignment of these two stories. See Gen. 41:38; Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:10, 11:6, 16:15-16, 23, 18:10, 19:20, 19:23; Ezekiel 11:24; 2 Chronicles 15:1, 24:20.

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