The mitzvah of Shabbat is so seminal that it surfaces in five different parshiyot in Sefer Shemot. Among these ‘appearances” is the discussion of Shabbat in one of the opening segments of this week’s parsha- Ki Tisa. This particular account of Shabbat highlights two themes. Firstly, Shabbat is presented as a special covenant between the Jews and HKB”H- “ot hi beini u’vein bnei Yisrael”. Violation of Shabbat betrays this covenant and is, essentially, a defection from our basic relationship with G-d. For this reason, Shabbat violation is treated fundamentally different from violations of other mitzvoth. The term “shomer Shabbat” is sometimes employed to denote a person who possesses an overall commitment to Halachik fidelity because it is truly representative of a broader covenant.
The second “new” theme of this Shabbat section in Ki Tisa is conveyed by the phrase “shabbaton kodesh L’Hashem “(a day which is sanctified to G-d). This phrase announces both the purpose of Shabbat as well as the texture of the Shabbat experience. The demand for cessation of all creative human activity on Shabbat is meant to recap Divine Creation. Fundamentally, G-d should have created endlessly since there are no limits to His infinite abilities. Logically, His creation should be unending; under these conditions our world would be in a constant state of flux without any stability or predictability. Yet, He unnaturally ceased after six days effectively carving out space for human enterprise. By simulating this withdrawal, we acknowledge both His creation as well as His cessation- a abstaining which was absolutely vital in providing space for human affairs.
During Shabbat we acknowledge this theme by enunciating Divine creation in our Kiddush (which has Biblical roots) as well as in our prayers (whose liturgy is a Rabbinic elaboration). However, in addition to these announcements, we denote Divine creation by halting all human activity and creating a day which is dedicated to, and sanctified for G-d. Shabbat is meant to be absent of human industry and, to a degree, bereft of convenience and comfort. This “padlocking” of human activity enables both spiritual ambience as well as an ability to contemplate our faith and our relationship with G-d. Parshat Ki Tisa also marks the debut of the term “shabbat shabaton”, which underlines the absolute and unconditional cessation of human experience to yield a more expanded religious consciousness. This is the portrait of Shabbat depicted in parshat Ki Tisa: a day dedicated to G-d in which human experience is abridged.
As the expression goes: Shabbat has come a “long” way. Successive waves of mechanization and automation have converted our Shabbat into comfortable and even luxurious weekends. We are rarely forced to make significant lifestyle sacrifices or to diminish our personal comfort level on behalf of Shabbat. Beyond modern conveniences and the luxury they provide for our Shabbat experience, over the past two generations, our world has become more chaotic and constantly “wired”; this has re-framed Shabbat as a coveted day of respite with ample opportunity to decompress and detach. Without question, these experiences are integral to Shabbat and are institutionalized through the mitzvah of “oneg Shabbat” which demands that we experience luxury and comfort. The respite and rejuvenation of Shabbat should not be trivialized.
Yet, it is more than fair and honest to wonder: in the absence of any meaningful “sacrifices” for Shabbat or any significant reduction of our weekly comfort levels, do we continue to sense the day which is dedicated to G-d? The image of a simple and “meager” Shabbat with diminished comfort seems extremely foreign to most of us.
A few years ago, the New York Times published an article written by a Shabbat-observant woman who shared the joy of Shabbat with a broader, non-Jewish audience. She extolled the “down time” with her family, and the ability to remain at home in pajamas while playing family games and enjoying each other’s company. Shabbat was being successfully “marketed” to the modern imagination as an elixir for many of the stresses of modern life! What happened to Shabbat l’Hashem?
It must be restated that, unquestionably, the enhancement of Shabbat experience is a welcome development. Judaism doesn’t celebrate deprivation and, when given the opportunity to improve our lives, we embrace it as part of an overall religious mandate to perfect our world and advance human prosperity. Regarding Shabbat in particular, many important components of Shabbat such as family, community, study, and personal reflection all can be enriched if the Shabbat environment is upgraded. Yet, “Shabbat l’Hashem” becomes diluted if Shabbat is centered solely around comfort and if Shabbat is aligned solely with human needs. This week’s parsha reminds us of the “other” aspect of Shabbat – the one in which human beings are commanded to withdraw, relinquish and abandon convenience for the sake of reliving the creation of the universe. Shabbat invites us to exchange human convention on behalf of 24 hours in the company of G-d.
This challenge- to retain the sacrifice of Shabbat as our comfort level rises- is reflective of a broader religious challenge. A very popular expression of previous generations was the Yiddish adage “it is shver (difficult) to be a Yid”. Indeed, previous generations sacrificed much on behalf of their religion and bore what sometimes felt like a very heavy religious burden. The conditions of life, in general, were harsh and religious adherence sometimes intensified the challenges. Additionally, history wasn’t always kind to Jews and living through economic deprivation and political persecution oftentimes cast religion as a glorious burden- but none the less a heavy one. In the past two generations religion has become reformulated and repackaged. We no longer cast Judaism as “difficult” or burdensome or suppressive to human experience. We deeply believe that our religion ennobles and enhances our lives. So often, we associate religion with the following words: meaning, purpose, content, values, idealism, fulfillment. Has the pendulum swung too far? Isn’t religion also termed as “avodas Hashem” which literally translates into toil and labor? Do we see ourselves as clients of religion – drawing its benefits, or do we view ourselves as servants called upon to sacrifice on behalf of religion. As a mental experiment, perhaps pose the following question to yourself: When is the last time you performed something “DIFFICULT” as part of your religion? So much of modern religion has been smoothed out. Kosher food for many Jews is readily available, and most of our religious duties are easily dispensed. Without any struggle in religion are we abandoning the notion of avodas Hashem? Has religion become TOO emulsified?
It is crucial that we wed religious consciousness to the modern milieu and to the modern imagination. In our culture of convenience Shabbat has benefitted and its growing popularity is a welcome development. This upgrading of Shabbat can’t come at the cost of “Shabbat l’Hashem”. In more general terms, enabling religion cannot come at the cost of working and toiling for religion or avodas Hashem.
By M taragin