by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Holy time is more important than holy space. Jewish commentary through the millennia has drawn this conclusion from several key passages in the Torah, including the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”):
And Moses assembled the whole community of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: Six days you shall do melakhah, and the seventh day there shall be holiness for you: a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does melakhah on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus/Shemot 35:1-3)
melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, labors; crafts; creative work, productive work; a project, an enterprise.
Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) = day of rest, day of stopping. (From the root verb shavat, שָׁבַת = stop, cease, desist.)
shabbat shabbaton (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) = day of absolute stopping.
Immediately after this, Moses hands down God’s directions for making the portable sanctuary—the most holy type of melakhah humans can do. According to most of commentary, Moses first makes it clear that the work of making the sanctuary must be confined to six days a week, then tells the people what to make. The holy day of Shabbat trumps the holy sanctuary.
As confirming evidence, the commentary points to the first mention of any form of the root shavat in the Torah—after God spends six “days” creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them.
God finished on the seventh day Its melakhah that It had done, vayishbot on the seventh day from all Its work that It had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… (Genesis/Bereishit 2:2-3)
vayishbot (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת) = and he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.
God made the seventh day holy long before making the sanctuary (or any other place) holy.
In between the beginning of Genesis and the ending of Exodus, the Torah gives us more information about Shabbat and melakhah in the fourth of the Ten Commandments.
Remember the day of the Shabbat to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. And the seventh day is Shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your resident alien who is within your gates. Because [for] six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, vayanach on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
vayanach (וַיָּנָח) = and he/it rested.
Here the Torah introduces the idea of stopping as resting. People, animals, and even God must periodically stop and rest. We know that our physical bodies need rest to rebuild energy. Do our souls also need rest to re-energize? During Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, God says:
The Children of Israel shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat for their generations, a covenant forever. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day shavat, vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.
vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)
Since the divine life of the universe pauses periodically for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post, Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)
One divine inspiration can trigger human beings to engage in a lifetime of holy work; but if we do not stop regularly to rest and listen with our souls, our work will never be animated by new inspirations.
When Shabbat comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah adds a new detail:
You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus 35:3)
Kindling a fire is the archetype of a human activity that is creative and useful, and enables further creative and useful work. Many ancient cultures considered kindling fire the beginning of civilization.
I would add that God manifests in the Torah as a sound, a cloud, or a fire. So fire can stand for our own holy work, as well as for God’s presence. And fire represents change and activity; flames are always moving, never stopping, until the fire has burned down to an ember.
I learned a hard lesson from preparing this blog post: as I suspected, I have been cheating myself.
It is a pleasure to refrain from doing drudgery on Shabbat. And during the years I worked at a job that was not my calling, I was always glad to take Saturday off.
But now I love my melakhah, my creative work of learning, pondering, and teaching Torah through my adult education classes, my Torah monologues, the services I lead, and this weekly blog. I love the work so much that it is hard to make myself take a vacation. I know I should rest on Shabbat, but after all, studying Torah is an approved Shabbat activity. So what if I put sticky tags next to passages I want to copy onto my computer the next day? So what if I take notes on Shabbat afternoon, even though the Talmud (in Shabbat 73a) includes writing in its list of melakhah forbidden on Shabbat? I decided long ago that I never wanted to be so strict in my observance that Shabbat became a punishment. Why not write down any ideas about the Torah that come to me? After all, studying Torah is holy work.
So was making the items for the sanctuary.
Rereading the portion Vayakheil this year, I can understand the value of stopping even holy work, once a week. My work makes me feel happy, but also driven. Every day that I have the blessing of time to work on Torah, I quickly kindle my inner fire. So far I have not run out of insights and observations—perhaps because I have 60 years of life to reflect upon. But I do run out of energy. I am starting to worry that my fuel supply is dwindling, and if I go on this way, I will burn out.
I need to rest more. I need to re-animate my soul. I need a regular day of shabbat shabbaton, absolute stopping. The Torah is right.
So I am going to start obeying the fourth commandment. I will still lead a Shabbat service now and then, having prepared the week before. But I will rest every Shabbat, and refrain from working on my next holy project. It will not be easy for me.