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Parashat Vayakhel 5776 — 03/05/2016

Parashat Vayakhel 5776 — 03/05/2016

Shemot 35:1-38:20

The Torah prohibits us from doing melachah, generally translated as “work” or “labor,” on Shabbat. This is an extremely important, fundamental part of Judaism; an observant Jew is often called a shomer Shabbat, one who keeps the Sabbath, although there are certainly other extremely important aspects of Jewish life. However, Torah does not say explicitly what melachah is. At the beginning of our parashah, the commandment to keep Shabbat is juxtaposed to a long description of all the “work” that went into building the Tabernacle, and it is from this juxtaposition, and the traditional list of the actual labors that were involved (39 categories of them, from spinning and weaving to plowing, planting, harvesting and cooking), that we derive which activities are forbidden on Shabbat. Thus, small tasks that involve no effort, like carrying a handkerchief in your pocket from inside your house to the street, may be forbidden, while large tasks, like rearranging all the furniture in your house, may be permitted. What then, do we mean by melachah?


R. Steinsaltz explains:

Work can be viewed not primarily with respect to the effort involved, but with respect to the result that is produced. One cannot determine what is work and what is not work by comparing the effort invested in each case, but by the results produced. No matter how much labor was involved, an unorganized effort that produces no results whatsoever, or that produces results that have no positive value, will not be classified as work.

This conception of work is essentially connected with the intention and thought that inform the effort. … That is, the defining concept of work is not toil but creation. This conception of work is a characteristically human conception, since it is based on the existence and activity of a guiding intentional faculty.

So when we cease from “work” on Shabbat, what we are really ceasing is creative activity. We stop, to the extent possible, manipulating the world around us, trying to bend it to our ends. This is, of course, an imitation of Gd, who “rested” on the 7th day after 6 days of creation, and Shabbat is seen as our testimony to our belief in this basic account of creation, as we say in the Shabbat evening kiddush: A remembrance of the act of Creation.

Now normally, we think of rest as the basis of activity. We sleep at night so we can wake up refreshed and energized for the activity of the day. This fundamental understanding is enshrined in Jewish tradition in the principle that the day begins at sunset, when we are winding down our activity and preparing to go to bed – and there was evening and there was morning, one day (Gen 1:5). But Shabbat is not like that. Shabbat comes at the end of Gd’s creative process, after He had surveyed all that He had created and pronounced it “very good.” And the verse that we recite in the Shabbat evening prayers begins, And the Heaven and the earth were completed… (Gen 2:1).

I think to understand this, we have to look a little more deeply into the concept of rest. First, it should be obvious that Gd doesn’t need to rest. He doesn’t get tired. He never runs out of energy – He is the source of all energy, matter and intelligence in the universe. And even on the seventh day, He didn’t stop maintaining the universe, because if He had, it would have immediately dissolved into nothingness again! In fact, since we posit that Gd is infinite, beyond the boundaries of time and space, we cannot speak of any kind of motion or change when it comes to Gd. This is a state of absolute rest, in a sense, because it is beyond even the possibility of activity.

While we can’t experience this level of rest while in a human body (which is of course bound by space and time), we can experience it with our minds, as we have described on a number of occasions. The mind is generally engaged in boundaries – of thought and perception. When those boundaries are allowed to fade and get subtler and subtler, the mind can actually transcend all boundaries of perception and experience an inner wakefulness, where one maintains one’s awareness, without being aware of any thing, any boundary. Since there are no boundaries, there is no change or motion or activity. It is a state of absolute restfulness.

This state of restfulness is different from the rest we get in sleep, which is characterized by no awareness at all (in deep sleep), as opposed to unbounded, infinite awareness. Sleep is pure inertia. Unbounded awareness is more like an arrow pulled back on a bow – it is in a state of great potential dynamism. Incidentally, the Kabbalists tell us that when Gd wanted to create, He “contracted” within Himself in order to leave room for creation to take place. This withdrawal I think is like the drawing back of the arrow on the bowstring – for the moment, it’s going in the opposite direction of what we want, but the reason is to provide greater impetus for the following phase.

Now in Gd’s case, we know what happens with this potential dynamism – it becomes the manifest, actual dynamism of creation. This is an outward directed action. As creation expands and ramifies, as it becomes more and more concrete, less and less abstract, it gets “farther” from Gd. But then something interesting happens – the various disparate parts of different systems start to become integrated into more complex, more sophisticated systems. This process of evolution is seen throughout the physical world, not only in biology. Galaxies, stars, planetary systems, all evolve, and all using some very similar principles which there is no space here to describe. This increasing integration reflects better and better the perfect Unity which is Gd.

Since Gd’s Unity is not a unity created out of parts (see Rambam’s second principle of the faith), there is really no physical system that can reflect Gd’s Unity perfectly. The human mind has a better chance. We mentioned already that the human mind can experience a state of pure awareness, with no boundaries, no parts. I believe that in this experience, especially if it becomes stabilized so that it coexists with the active states of the mind, represents a coming full circle of the creative process. That process began in undifferentiated unity and finds its fulfillment in undifferentiated unity. Perhaps this is a deeper meaning of the Sabbath’s rest and cessation from the creative process. We are not resting because we need a breather from the creative process, rather we are resting because we have fulfilled the creative process. On Shabbat we are supposed to view all our tasks as completed, whether they are or not. Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a world of purity, integration and truth, where in fact the creative process will have been fulfilled. By observing Shabbat properly, we are, in effect, “practicing” to live a life of perfection.

Haftarah: Parashat Shekalim II Kings 11:17-12:17

Parashat Shekalim includes a special maftir reading (Ex 30:11-16) that details the collection of the half-shekel head tax, which was used to take the census (since we don’t count Jews directly – a discussion for another day) and then was applied to the construction of the Mishkan. In subsequent years, especially during the times of the Temple, the half-shekels were used to purchase the communal offerings and the incense, with any extra amounts dedicated to Temple upkeep. The half-shekels were collected during the month of Adar, as they were due by the new year, on the first of Nisan (“but Rosh haShanah is the first of Tishri!” – true, but for sacred purposes, the year starts in Nisan – the first commandment given to the Jewish people was “this month [i.e. the month of the Exodus – Nisan] shall be to you the first of the months.”).

There is also a special Haftarah (and interestingly, in this case, the Ashkenazim have a shorter reading) which tells the story of King Yehoash’s attempt to get the Kohanim to actually use the funds they had been collecting for Temple upkeep for their intended purpose, rather than simply pocketing them. He actually invents the world’s first pushke – a large box with a hole large enough to put money in, but small enough to keep grasping hands out. When the box was full, the royal scribes and treasurers would count it up and use it to keep the Temple in good repair. Simple, once somebody thinks of it!

Now, admittedly, Kings is one of the historical books of the Bible, but one wonders why a whole chapter should be devoted to such a mundane topic. Perhaps we’re being told that money is not as mundane as we think. Money, after all, is really congealed energy. It’s energy from the sun which powers our muscles to grow crops, which powers our animals and our machines, which powers virtually all economic activity. Those who can control more money, control more energy and therefore control more activity. And this control can be exercised for good or for ill – unfortunately, in an unenlightened society it is more often than not used for destruction. Of the US budget of almost $1 Trillion annually, 57% is devoted to the military – that is, ultimately, to destructive purposes. If even a fraction of that were devoted to solving our pressing social problems, the country would be much stronger from within, and therefore less vulnerable to evildoers from without. Next time you spend some money, think about your priorities!