Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Sabbath

Often, as I write these essays, I get stuck trying to say too much in the precious little allocated web space here. There is so much to say on each of these subjects, and I fear I'd be cheating you by saying too little.  But such is the nature of communication. You can only say one thing at a time, particularly in analytic prose. Our minds handle one thing at a time. We are finite beings.

This is one reason why the Torah is so big. When we discuss God, we are facing the infinite. You need many words for such a task.

So I proceed with the caveat that I speak here but a tiny fraction of what can be spoken on these subjects. As I keep saying, I am just taking a shot.

The problem of choosing the right words to approach a big topic is especially prevalent with the Sabbath.  You can hardly find a bigger topic in Torah thought. Jewish life is built around the Sabbath and Torah thought comes back to it continuously.

In the first chapter of the Bible, the verses say that the Lord created the world in six days, rested on the seventh , and called the seventh "the Sabbath." 

Later in the Torah, God tells us that we too should rest on that day. The Talmud explains that this rest consist of several parts. One part is to desist from the kind of creative physical activity that was used to build the tabernacle in the desert. The tabernacle is symbolic of the world. By refraining from the same kinds of physical activity used to build it, we acknowledge the Lord as being the creator of it. I often think of this as follows: on the Sabbath, we lay off the kinds of physical work which were used to build the world. Yet, we see that the world goes on without our efforts. This demonstrates and honors the existence of a Creator.

Furthermore, by refraining from the same kinds of physical activity used to build the world, we separate ourselves from physicality in its fundamental state. This brings about and connects us to a spirituality that permeates the world on that day.

Some of these activities include lighting fires, building physical structures, weaving, and sowing seeds. During the construction of the tabernacle, fire was used to cook the dyes which were applied to sheep skins. The physical structure being built was the tabernacle itself. Woolen coverings were weaved. Seeds were sown to produce plants which were later converted into dyes. Each of these components to the tabernacle themselves offer symbolism which we will have to discuss at a later time.

The rest of the Sabbath also includes an avoidance of distinctly secular activity. Making business deals is inappropriate on that day. The Sabbath should be a day of higher spirituality. Business and making a living hold a very important place in spiritual life since we would starve without them. But they support spiritual life, they are not the essence of it. On the Sabbath, we try to push off the physical and focus on the spiritual. Business talk interferes with that.

By refraining from business, we demonstrate another very important principle as well. Our sustenance does not really flow from our work, it flows from the Lord. The plow, the wrench, the computer, our tools of work, lay idle for a day yet we continue to prosper. We work because it is good for us. It keeps us grounded and humble. We work also to test ourselves with the tempting thought that our labor is what produces our income.  But this is just an illusion. The Lord provides us with the sustenance appropriate for our respective souls. The work is a sort of cover up for that.

When the Jews marched through the Sinai desert after the exodus from Egypt, they ate from food provided directly from Heaven. This food appeared in the encampment each morning. On Friday, a double portion appeared. This double portion was meant for Friday and Saturday. It is the same with our sustenance. The Lord provides it every day. We have no need to work on the Sabbath since the Lord provides us our Sabbath day sustenance in advance. By not working, we acknowledge all of that.

So what's left. Well, the Sabbath becomes a day of study, prayer, contemplation, family, and community. We shut off the pagers and cell phones and try to focus on the higher things. The Sabbath forces us out of the rat race and situates us around people and books.

Some things to try:

Candle lighting - prior to the onset of the Sabbath, on Friday night before sunset, we light candles. These candles honor the day by giving light and adornment to the Sabbath dinner table. Additionally, the flame of the candle is symbolic of the soul. On the Sabbath, the soul is especially invigorated by the spirituality of the day.

Refraining from business. Rather, spend some time in contemplation, prayer, or study.

Spending time with loved ones.

Refraining from cooking or working in a garden. These are two of the physically creative labors performed in the tabernacle.

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