This is a repost of the d'var Torah I wrote back in 2006 for Radical Torah -- which was offline through the fall and into the winter, but I am delighted to report that it is once again online! I'm going to keep reposting divrei Torach here because I like having them all on my own site, but I'm happy to see that RT is back on the block; here's hoping we see some new content there soon.
In parashat Ki Tisa we read a series of injunctions about keeping Shabbat:
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.
Of course, the rabbis took pains to reinterpret most of the death sentences in Torah, and this one is no exception. One way of reinterpreting these lines is to read them as metaphor. These can be descriptive statements, rather than prescriptive ones; they tell us something valuable about the need to pause in our labors.
Ki Tisa tells us that he (or she) who works on Shabbat is turning away from the sustaining potential of the day of rest. One who works all the time is indeed spiritually cut off from kin who take time off for rest, for prayer, for savoring splendor. How many of us have had the experience of going on vacation but bringing along the laptop and cellphone just to "check in" with work once or twice? More often than not, checking email or voicemail opens all kinds of trouble, and by the time the laptop clicks shut again we've lost the restful mindset of being away from the ordinary. And we've lost connection with our friends or family, those on the vacation with us, who are still in a vacation headspace we may no longer be able to access. The same is true of Shabbat.
Prizing work above all else is a kind of hubris. It asserts that our goals and achievements, our flow charts and to-do lists, are more important than relationships (either with others or with God). One who cares only for work may not be literally put to death, but she is certainly deadened. This text may also have literal resonance — someone who works all the time may be shortening her or his lifetime with stress — but over and above that literal meaning, it speaks to me on a symbolic level. Work all you want the rest of the week, Ki Tisa tells me, but take time away from worldly concerns to breathe, relax, sing, learn, connect with community and with God. This is the way to be the sanctified people God wants us to be.
Out of these simple lines an encyclopedic set of rules and prohibitions surrounding Shabbat has arisen. For many liberal Jews these may seem daunting at best, if not outdated. For instance, traditional interpretation of halakha forbids driving on Shabbat because ignition kindles a fire, but in today's auto-focused world most of us find walking to shul onerous (if not outright impossible).
And many of us find pleasure in activities that might look like "work" to an outside eye. Some of my happiest Shabbatot have been spent revising poems, pickling string beans, or reorganizing the garage with my husband with the radio on. Tapping away at my laptop, filling sterile jars with newly-washed produce, or lugging cordwood and potting soil — these aren't traditional Shabbat activities. So am I scrapping halakha and defying the words of Ki Tisa?
I don't think so, and neither does Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi. In his most recent book, Jewish With Feeling, he writes:
If you enjoy gardening for its own sake, rather than regard it as a chore you'd just as soon delegate to someone else; if you're enjoying spending time with your plants rather than working on a crop with which to feed your family, then gardening is a Shabbosdik activity for you. If you're a computer programmer by trade but a potter at heart, and if setting aside some Shabbos time each week would allow you to enjoy sitting down at the potter’s wheel, then pottery is a Shabbosdik activity for you.
The traditional halakha of Shabbat may feel incompatible with our contemporary reality. For many liberal Jews, that leads to a sense that halakha doesn't speak to us, so we shrug and ignore it. We drive places, and buy things, and do stuff, on Shabbat without giving it a second thought...unless a more-traditional relative is around, in which case our activities are overlaid with a sheen of guilt. Surely guilt, of all feelings, is most foreign to the Shabbat spirit! How much better to consider the way we spend Shabbat time; to give some thought to the Torah's linkage of constant work with death; and to take ownership of the parameters of our Shabbat experiences. To replace a negative choice about Shabbat ("halakha is irrelevant, so forget it") with a positive one ("this is how I want to spend time with my family; this is what feeds my spirit"). To reimagine the practices of Shabbat in a way that brings us closer to holiness.
These injunctions about Shabbat come right on the heels of a set of instructions for building the Mishkan, the tabernacle designed as a dwelling-place for God’s presence. That tabernacle became the blueprint for the Temple in Jerusalem, the longtime center of Jewish life. Torah’s juxtaposition of Mishkan instructions and Shabbat commandments prefigures the historical shift Judaism underwent when the second Temple was destroyed. Today Shabbat is, in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, a holy temple in time. It's a recurring chance to develop and sustain connection with the Infinite. The Mishkan doesn’t exist anymore — but Shabbat can be eternal, just as Ki Tisa dictates, for as long as we operate within time.
Shabbat is a space for connection with God. In eschewing onerous work for 25 hours, we set personal boundaries. We articulate, to ourselves and those around us, that once a week our wage-earning work takes a back seat to our spiritual needs and our desires for relationship. Just as being chained to work is deadening, taking space away from work is an affirmation of life... and when we adorn this day each week with mindfulness and joy we participate in the ongoing creation and beautification of our own kind of Mishkan, a space for the Infinite in our lives.