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Parashat 02/16/2011

Parashat Ki Tisa

by Robert Rabinoff

Six days work shall be done (31:15)

For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations (31:13)

All who do work on it [Shabbat], that soul shall be cut off from among its people. (31:14)

Six days shall you work (34:21)

Shabbat is absolutely central to Jewish life.  The week revolves around Shabbat, preparing for Shabbat, thinking about Shabbat, anticipating Shabbat.  Shabbat is a foretaste of the World to Come, a chance to put aside our material cares for 25 hours and live a life wholly of the spirit.

Our Sages learn the types of “work” that are prohibited on Shabbat from the juxtaposition of the commandment to not work with the commandment to build the mishkan (Tabernacle).  The 39 categories of labor required to build and operate the mishkan are specifically the labors that are forbidden on Shabbat (they are enumerated in the second mishnah of chapter 7 of tractate Shabbat).  When we observe Shabbat properly, we do not view these restrictions as limiting, rather they are liberating, freeing us from the necessity of fussing with our environment, and allowing us to live on a subtler level, the level of mind and spirit.

Just as Shabbat is vital to living life as a Jew, violating Shabbat has particularly severe consequences – if one is warned not to transgress by two witnesses, the penalty is death.  If there are no witnesses or proper warning, yet the transgression was purposeful, the punishment is being “cut off,” or spiritual excision.

In general, the commandment to honor Shabbat is preceded by the statement that on the other 6 days of the week we are allowed to do work, just as Gd did the “work” of Creation in 6 days and “rested” on the 7th.  In the first citation, above, however, the locution is in the passive: On six days work shall be done.  The question arises, is the work getting done by itself?!  I’d like to propose an approach to this question that will give us some insight into why Shabbat should be so important.

We have discussed over the past few weeks that at the basis of creation is a silent, unchanging, infinite basis – pure, unmanifest existence.  This basis, like the ocean, rises in waves; the waves are what we perceive as all changing forms and phenomena, including our own bodies, minds and activities.  As we grow from self-centered infants to mature adults, our vision of ourself expands.  We see ourselves as something that is more than our body, more than our activity, more even than our thinking or our individuated personality.  Eventually, a fully developed person identifies himself with the infinite, pure existence at his core.  At that point he experiences himself as silent, witnessing all the activity of creation, including the mind and body that are supporting this experience, as manifestations of his own self.  Not everyone reaches this level of development of course, but of that more later.

Now if we experience ourselves as purely silent inside, then we can understand what it means to say that for 6 days “work shall be done.”  Since we are not acting, only witnessing, it is exactly as if the activity taking place is taking place by itself.

On Shabbat we all get to experience this level of silence, to a greater or lesser extent; we let activity cease to the extent humanly possible, until all we are left with is the silence within ourselves.  If we do not do this, that is, if we continue to act out of our own individuality, then we cut ourselves off from the root of our own existence, and we are reduced to the active voice: “Six days shall you work.”  This is the ordinary state of awareness, where we are left to flounder in the realm of change, disconnected from what we really, intrinsically are, getting exhausted and actually accomplishing very little.  It is aptly described as “spiritual excision”!

(In this sense, Shabbat is an antidote to the golden calf, one of the major themes of our Parashah.  The golden calf was a result of a perceived loss of connection to the Divine, that Moshe Rabbeinu provided.  Without this connection the people thought they were left to flounder in the desert; their response was to create false “gods,” finite creations with no power to do anything.  In the absence of Shabbat we similarly lose (or never create) a connection to the Divine.  Without that connection we create various “gods,” be they causes that we fight for, or actual gold and silver, or a big house, or even our children – none of which has any power to bring much fulfillment to our lives.)

Torah is our Divinely-given guidebook to becoming fully-developed human beings, fulfilling all the potentialities we were given by the Creator.  If Torah emphasizes the importance of Shabbat, it is because proper observance of Shabbat is “practice” as it were for perceiving the world from this fully developed standpoint.  And this “practice” eventually makes “perfect,” as the silence of Shabbat gradually begins to perfuse throughout the six days of activity, imbuing all our existence and activity with sanctity.  Truly it is a gift from our loving Creator.  We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to Gd to make best use of it.