Weekly Torah Commentary Ki Tisa February 18, 2011

Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: you must keep my Sabbaths.  It is a sign between Me and you for all generations to make you realize that I, Hashem, am making you holy.’ Shemot/Exodus 31:12-13

After outlining the instructions for the Mishkan (Tabernacle),  Hashem repeated the commandment to keep Shabbat for the second time to insure that the children of Israel would not think that Shabbat could be ignored while they were building the Mishkan.  After all, the Mishkan was being built to house the Divine Presence in the midst of the people.  One could think that perhaps that was more important than Shabbat, at least temporarily during the building process.  Therefore, Hashem impressed upon Moshe to tell the people that Shabbat must still be kept.

We cannot overemphasize the pre-eminence of Shabbat.  The very first Shabbat was observed by Hashem Himself as we read in Beresheit, “And Hashem rested on the seventh day.” 2:2  Since Hashem created the entire world with speech,  it certainly was not a matter of resting from arduous physical labor!  Aha!  Perhaps herein is an aspect of Shabbat that is too little discussed!

When the Torah says, “Hashem rested from His work…” it is telling us that throughout the seventh day, Hashem uttered NO creative words as He had been doing for the previous six days.  Nothing new came into being on the seventh day.  There was quiet, stillness, peace, tranquility.  This is the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word, menuha, usually translated as ‘rest’.

Have we realized that an integral part of observing Shabbat involves the faculty of speech?  The world was created because “God said….and it was so.” That was His ‘work’.

The immediately obvious application is that we should refrain from any creative expression like writing a poem, for example, which would ‘create’ something that has not existed before.  Or discussing business ventures or financial planning and other such topics that occupy our attention during the other six days of the week.  But is there anything else?

We know that we are not to kindle a fire in our homes on Shabbat so devout Jews refrain from such activities as cooking, taking care to prepare Shabbat food ahead of time.  But what about the ‘fire’ that can be kindled by the human tongue?  If we are scrupulously careful to avoid literally ‘kindling a fire’ in our homes, but are careless with the manner in which we speak to our spouses, children or other family members on the Sabbath, are we truly observing the commandment?  Are the efforts made by devout Jews to guard against kindling a fire in their homes purely an external, mechanical issue?  I would suggest, rather, that refraining from actually kindling fire (such as with one’s oven or fireplace) should serve as a weekly reminder to keep our speech gentle, calm and loving, most especially throughout Shabbat.

Should we not do so every day?  Certainly, but who among us would dare claim to have reached such a lofty level of spirituality?  It would be a worthy undertaking to focus on keeping Shabbat as Hashem did, by resting from idle chatting and devoting ourselves to uplifting conversation, such as discussion of Torah.

We derive from the text a second reason that Hashem repeated the commandment to keep Shabbat.  “It is a sign between Me and you for all generations to make you realize that I, Hashem, am making you holy.”

Should the people have been allowed to think that the work of the Tabernacle superceded Shabbat, they could have concluded that Hashem’s holiness rested in a structure made of wood, stone and fabric.  It was paramount that they know the truth;  i.e., that holiness was to be in them. “You shall make Me a Sanctuary and I shall dwell in them.” Israel was to be the living Tabernacle of which the Mishkan was to be a visible example and reminder.

The word ‘holy’ (Kadosh in Hebrew) first appears in Bresheit when Hashem set apart the seventh day and called it ‘holy’.  Living as we do in a world of material things which occupy so much of our attention on a daily basis, it is most significant to note that the first thing God called ‘holy’ was not a thing, but a period of time.  Observing Shabbat, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the art of creating a palace in time, a palace when our soul reconnects in a dynamic way with its Creator, the King of the Universe.

It was imperative that the children of Israel know that it was not the Tabernacle that would make them holy;  Hashem was making them holy and the first ‘location’ of holiness He created was not a geographical place such as the Tabernacle, but a location in time, Shabbat.

As noted in last week’s commentary, Hashem knew that the Tabernacle would not last forever;  neither would the Temples in Jerusalem.  But nothing can do away with Shabbat.  That is why it — and it alone — is a ‘sign between Me and you for all generations…’

If there is no Mishkan, every week there is still Shabbat.  If there is no Temple, every week there is still Shabbat.  It is taught that whoever keeps Shabbat is considered as if he kept the entire Torah.

However long we study, there is always more to learn about the great gift of Shabbat.

In tune with Torah this week = observing Shabbat consistently with all our heart and soul, drawing to ourselves the special holiness of the seventh day, to refocus our minds and hearts on what is truly important.

May “Shabbat Shalom” become much more than a greeting, may it be for each of us a deeply spiritual experience.

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