24th May 2019 • Rabbi Shai Held • Judaism dreams of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. Yet the world we live in falls excruciatingly short of that dream. Human dignity is trodden and trampled upon in countless ways in every corner of the globe—and in our own backyards. And in a world so utterly suffused with suffering and devastation, God can seem absent, indifferent, even non-existent. To take Torah seriously, on the one hand, and to live with our eyes and hearts open, on the other, can be a harrowing project. And yet that is precisely what mature spirituality demands of us. Herein lies our challenge: How to hold onto the dream, how to nourish it and live by its lights, without losing all hope, without concluding that the way the world is, is the way it will always be. Judaism’s boldest response to that challenge is, in a word, Shabbat.1
When God tells Moses how to build the tabernacle (mishkan), God concludes by invoking Shabbat: “Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages… The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time” (Exodus 32:13,16). And when Moses passes on these instructions to the Israelites, he begins by telling them about Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord” For the Torah, Shabbat and mishkan are inextricably linked. Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) – Iyar 5774 2 (Exodus 35:2). In the book of Leviticus, both parashat Kedoshim and parashat Behar make the link between Shabbat and mishkan even stronger: “You shall keep my sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:30 and 26:2). For the Torah, Shabbat and mishkan are inextricably linked. But how, exactly? What is the precise nature of the connection between them?
On Shabbat, creative labor (mel’akha) is forbidden. The Mishnah lists 39 such prohibited labors (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2), while the Talmudic Sage R. Hanina b. Hama explains that these prohibited labors are those that went into the construction of the mishkan. An earlier Rabbinic text states: “They [those who built the mishkan] sowed, hence you must not sow; they reaped, hence you must not reap, etc” (BT, Shabbat 49b). Shabbat and mishkan are connected by labor: What was required to construct the mishkan is prohibited on Shabbat.
But what does all this mean?
As I have discussed elsewhere, for the Torah the tightly ordered mishkan represents a radical alternative to the often frightening and chaotic world we inhabit.2 It is intended, Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann notes, as “a counterworld to Israel’s lived experience, which is dangerous and disordered. The counterworld offered in the tabernacle holds out the gift of a well-ordered, joy-filled, and peace-generating creation.”3 Many interpreters have noted that Shabbat is to time what the mishkan is to space. Like the mishkan, Shabbat is itself a “counterworld,” an island where goodness abounds, wholeness is possible, and the divine presence is almost tangible. Amidst a world swirling with chaos and overrun by suffering and degradation, Shabbat offers a glimpse into another order of reality.
So why are the labors necessary for building the mishkan forbidden on Shabbat? Herein lies one of Jewish spirituality’s most audacious claims: On Shabbat we live as if the mishkan has already been erected. We do not try to perfect the world because, we insist, it is already perfect. We are forbidden to perform any task necessary for constructing this counterworld because the counterworld is already fully built. “On Shabbat,” R. Yitz Greenberg writes, “it is not really that one is forbidden to work. It is that all is perfect, there is nothing to do.”4
This is how Judaism inspires us not to lose faith, how it helps us go on believing in the dream. “The question is: From where can [the Jewish] people draw the strength to renew their dreams again and again? The answer of Jewish tradition is: Give people just a foretaste of the fulfillment, and then they will never give it up. The Shabbat is that taste.”5 Rabbinic tradition teaches that Shabbat offers an anticipatory glimpse of another reality. A midrash imagines a conversation between the Jewish people and God: “Israel said: ‘Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?’ God said to them, ‘The world-to-come.’ They replied: ‘Master of the world, show us its likeness (dugma).’ God responded: ‘It is Shabbat, which is one-sixtieth of the world-to-come—which is entirely Shabbat.”6
Life can be so enervating; reality can be so utterly harsh and stubborn; and religion can therefore seem like so much childish chatter. How to affirm that things really can be different, that they are intended to be different? Greenberg writes: “The weekly encounter with messianic perfection saves one from internalising the indignity and injustice of the status quo.”7 By entering a different reality once a week, we are reminded that a different world is possible; we are enabled to catch a faint glimmer of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. Indeed, Jewish theology affirms, that is the world as it will one day be.
Imagine resting in the fullness of what is rather than being consumed by the pain of what is not yet, and by the anxiety that it may never be. The challenge and the opportunity of Shabbat is to do just that once each week.
Jewish liturgy subtly facilitates our entry into that other, already perfect reality. During the week, the heart of the Amidah prayer is a series of thirteen requests. We implore God for wisdom and forgiveness, for spiritual renewal and physical health, for agricultural blessing and an answer to all our prayers, and for much more. On Shabbat, stunningly, all the petitions simply fall away. The reason is clear: On Shabbat we don’t ask for anything because we already have everything we could possibly need.*
There is another enormously powerful dimension to all this. We live in a world of staggering inequality. Some live in lavish luxury while others struggle to scrape by—and day after day, countless thousands fail to. The inequalities are so vast that it can be tempting to internalise them, to think—consciously or not—that they reflect some deeper metaphysical truth. Maybe some people really are worth more than others. The Torah rejects that temptation out of hand and insists that such thoughts are both ethically and theologically insidious.
One of the most radical ideas in all of Jewish law is the insistence that we may not handle money on Shabbat. On Shabbat both the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor leave their wallets at home; the billionaire tycoon and the poor gas station attendant are totally equal. The message is clear: Socio-economic status tells us nothing at all about metaphysical status. On Shabbat—and in the ideal future it represents—human equality will be discernible to all.
This is also why the Torah is so insistent that even slaves must rest on Shabbat (note: Not may rest, but must rest). The book of Exodus teaches: “The seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements” (Exodus 20:10). Bible scholar Nahum Sarna explains that in this verse, “human liberty is immeasurably enhanced, human equality is strengthened, and the cause of social justice is promoted by legislating the inalienable right of every human being, irrespective of social class, and of draft animals as well, to twenty-four hours of complete rest every seven days.”8
While Exodus grounds the obligation to observe Shabbat in the creation of the world (20:11), Deuteronomy bases it on the redemption of the slaves from Egypt (5:15). Deuteronomy’s description of Shabbat rest is startling: “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements.” So far, so familiar. But now Deuteronomy adds, “So that your male and female slave may rest as you do” (Deuteronomy 5:14). The motive clause is extremely potent: “It is as if the entire household is required to rest so that there can be no occasion to make the servants work.”9 And the last words—“as you do” (kamokha)—are even more so: They forcefully remind the landowner that the slave is “as you.” The text thus “makes the sabbath a great day of equalization in which all social distinctions are overcome, and all rest alike.”10 No matter how much power or wealth you have and how little the slave does, at the deepest level you are equal. The Shabbat laws thus open a window on what the world looks like from God’s perspective, and on what it ought to look like from ours.
The philosopher George Santayana writes about the power of religion, “The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in— whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no—is what we mean by having a religion.”11 That is what Shabbat offers us: Another world to live in. If we truly enter that world, both we and the everyday world we ordinarily inhabit are transformed. Human dignity becomes a little bit more real, the presence of God becomes a little bit more manifest, and Judaism’s dream gains in both vitality and plausibility.
Having experienced Shabbat, we are bidden to return to the world to work and build. The Torah’s first creation story ends by telling us—translating over-literally—that “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy because on it God had ceased from all the work God had created to do” (asher bara Elohim la’asot) (Genesis 2:3). Sarna explains that the seemingly superfluous final Hebrew word refers to the work God had left for humanity to do going forward.12 Having lived in the mishkan, as it were, we are now asked to help build it. Having tasted a hint of the world-to-come, we are asked to help make this world look more like that one. That is the meaning of faithfulness to the covenant: Dreaming and doing.
1 The interpretation of Shabbat presented here is heavily indebted to the work of my teacher R. Yitz Greenberg. See Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (1988), pp. 127-181.
2. Cf. my “Order Amidst Chaos: Connecting to Leviticus,” CJLI Parashat Vayikra 5774, available here.
3 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997), p. 664. Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) – Iyar 5774 3
4 Greenberg, The Jewish Way, p. 131.
5 Greenberg, The Jewish Way, p. 128
6 Otiot De-Rabbi Akiva, in J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim, vol. 2 (1915), p. 409.
7 Greenberg, The Jewish Way, p. 132.
*As someone who suffers from debilitating chronic illness, I frequently experience one moment in the Shabbat liturgy as particularly poignant and painful. It is a moment when the elaborate metaphor we have created begins to teeter, when the world as it is threatens to simply overpower our attempt to live now in the world as it could, and, we defiantly insist, will one day be. Each week, we pray for those who are ill. During this prayer, we declare that “it is Shabbat and therefore we do not cry out” (Shabbat hih mi-liz’ok)—and yet, on some level, that is precisely what we are doing. The body under siege, wracked by pain and disease, pushes up against the boundary of our metaphor. The world as it is threatens to overrun the world as it could be.
8 Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus (1991), p. 112.
9 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (1996), p. 69
10 Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (1994), p. 845, summarizing Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (1974), pp. 139-140.
11 George Santayana, Reason in Religion, cited in Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System.” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), p. 87
12 Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (1989), p. 15. Sarna attributes this view to the medieval commentators R. Abraham Ibn Ezra and R. David Kimhi, but I think they are actually saying something else—that what God leaves for them to do is to procreate.