Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vayakhel (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog for March 2006.

The Two Faces of Shabbat

A few weeks ago (HY IX: Beshalah) we discussed Shabbat as a day of poetic quality, as a “Temple in time,” as a focal point of transcendent beauty, of holiness, and of God’s presence in the world.

But there is also another, sterner side to Shabbat. In the parshiyot of both this week and last week, Shabbat appears briefly, seemingly out of context, in “cameo” passages, if one may speak thus (Exod 31:12-17; 35:1-3). These two brief passages “frame” the account of the revelation of God’s mercies in the Cleft of the Rock; they also serve as a kind of counterpoint to chapters of the construction of the Sanctuary that precede and follow them, suggesting a complex interplay between the ideas of Shabbat and Mikdash. Moreover, in both these passages the emphasis is placed on the prohibitions against doing any form of labor on Shabbat, and on the sanctions—karet, being “cut off,” and/or the death penalty!—for one who violates it. Moreover, from the opening three verses of this week’s parasha, the Sages infer several important legal principles about the laws of Shabbat: that there are 39 categories of forbidden labor (melakhot; inferred, both from the labors involved in constructing the Sanctuary, as well as from certain hints derived from the words אלה הדברים); and, from the verse singling out the prohibition against kindling fire for special mention, they learn that the 39 labors are formally divided from one another, and that each one is an entity unto itself, as far as penalties for violation of Shabbat goes (הבערה לחלק באה).

A few years ago, in our studies of Rambam, we mentioned (HY V: Beshalah; Yitro: Postscript) that, contrary to the familiar image of Shabbat as queen—a gentle, warm, loving, feminine presence—Rambam speaks of the Shabbat as king. He describes a kind of rudimentary Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony, in which one should dress in one’s finest raiment and sit in taut anticipation, saying the words “Let us go out to welcome Shabbat the King” (see Hilkhot Shabbat 30.2; and compare the feminine language in the relevant Talmudic passage, the saying of R. Hanina in Shabbat 119a. Indeed, Reuven Kimelman, in his book on Kabbalat Shabbat, discusses these two aspects: receiving Shabbat as a sublime spiritual presence, and accepting it in the sense of an authority, the “yoke” of Shabbat as a certain rule and discipline incumbent upon one for 24 hours.

It seems unfashionable these days to talk overly much about the harsher or more restrictive side of Judaism—the “don’ts,” which bring in their wake the possibility of violation and transgression, and with them the idea of sanctions and feelings of guilt and sinfulness, and the need for atonement that go with it. But this too is an essential component of Shabbat: ירא שבת, “fear Shabbat,” is one of the seventy permutations that Tikkunei Zohar derives from the word בראשית.

One might draw a certain analogy to a passage in Pirkei Avot (2.15 [or: 10; or: 13]), which I happened to study recently with my hevruta. Here R. Eliezer b. Azariah, after laying out his personal summum bonum, adds a rather strange statement about how one ought to relate to Sages: “Warm yourself by the glow of the Sages, but take care of their glowing ambers, lest you be burnt. For their bite is like the bite of a fox, and their sting is like the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is like the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”

What is the point of this ferocious portrait of the sages? Are not scholars and teachers, perhaps more than anyone else, expected to be models of moral and ethical character, which includes first of all eschewing anger and behaving towards others with love and humility? Of course, in the end talmidei hakhamim are like any other people, and run the gamut of personalities. Among the great sages, past and present, there were many who were models of modesty and love, radiating love and devotion to even the simplest folk, while there were others who were marked impatience, zeal, and even anger, all for the sake of Heaven—quite literally, “holy terrors.”

But beyond the anecdotal sphere, both these contradictory aspects are part of the image of the teacher of Torah (both traits can certainly be found within the figure of Moses, father of all teachers!), and they derive from certain innate structural conflicts. I would describe this as the polarity between what Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once called the “love of the father” and “love of the son.” On the one hand, the religious Jew ought to be overflowing with “love of the son”—the love of every Jew, as forming part of the covenant community—and, indeed, the love of every human being as such, as being made in the Divine image—that brings him to humility, to eradicating his own ego, to demonstrate love and warmth and joy to others as much as possible. But on the other, he burns with love of Torah and love of God; he is passionate in his desire to learn Torah, to worship God, and to perform the mitzvot in as perfect and complete a way as possible, and to teach this path to others—and at times, almost inevitably, this may express itself in anger and impatience with those who do not meet these high standards.

To return to the subject of Shabbat: these two faces of Shabbat are emblematic of God’s conduct of the world, of the nature of the Creation which Shabbat symbolizes, and of the Torah which was given and is studied on Shabbat. On the one hand, the strict, even harsh aspect, of law, of discipline, of objective, unbending norms; on the other hand, the maternal, loving, nourishing side (think of a Shabbat table filled with goodies). Or, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned: the strict, disciplinarian father-instructor (Shabbat the King), and the warm, nourishing. loving mother (Queen Shabbat). Even if one argue that these images may belong to a pre-egalitarian age, and in many modern families both parents strive to realize both these functions in their everyday life, in any value-rich reality these two sides surely exist: sternness and love, Hesed and Gevurah, and both are surely needed.

To conclude with a mystical insight, that may perhaps explain the severity of the Shabbat discipline: Shabbat was instituted to recognize and honor God’s creation of the universe. This is done through reciting Kiddush, through prayer and study, but most of all by ourselves refraining from labor that is in some sense “creative”—that alters material reality, as God did during the Six Days. On Shabbat, God so-to-speak rests, withdrawing His creative power from the cosmos. Thus, one who performs labor on Shabbat is as-if making use of an energy that in some metaphysical sense defies the Divine rhythm of the universe.

Postscript: KI TISA—Reader Comment

Last week I stated that: “The second, truly astonishing point is the role played by Moses in all this. Moshe Rabbenu, ‘the man of God,’ is not only the great teacher of Israel, the channel through which they learn the Divine Torah, but also, as it were, one who teaches God Himself.” Reader Susanna Levin, writing in response to this, raised a well-known problem:

The problem here is that if God needs Moshe to teach Him, that then detracts from God’s divinity, i.e., God should “know better.” Your comments?

Susanna’s point is well taken. But I’m not alone in this idea. There are many midrashim which say radical and daring things about the man-God relationship. Note the series of daring midrashim elaborating Moshe’s dialogue with God in wake of the Golden Calf. But not only midrash: When Abraham challenges God viz. the people of Sedom—“Shall not the judge of the whole earth do justice”—this is a similar mode of thinking. The inevitable conclusion is that the perfect God of the philosophers (and I mean our own philosophers, Rambam, his later medieval followers, and the whole slew of 19th century rationalist idealists) is a far cry from the God of the Bible and the Midrash.

At times, the midrashic authors seem to have been overwhelmed by their own theological daring. On such occasion, to indicate the problematic or fen paradoxical nature of their words, the hutzpah involved in reading things this way, they would throw in the words “as it were” or “so to speak” (kivyakhol), or even “Were it not written, we would not dare to say such a thing.”

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