This week, in Parashat Emor, in chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus, we have a calendar of annual festivities. This calendar starts by teaching us about Shabbat.
In the Book of Leviticus, chapter 23, we read:
“1. And God spoke to Moses, saying,
- Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them:
These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.
- On six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a holy gathering; you shall do no melakha in it; it is the Sabbath of God in all your dwellings.”
You notice that I did not translate the word melacha. It is usually translated as “work”. The rabbis understood the word melacha to define the 39 specific categories of work delineated in the Mishnah that were necessary for the creation of the Tabernacle, the moving structure that accompanied the Israelites in the desert for 40 years. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that on Shabbat we were supposed to cease from manual labor so we could dedicate that time to work on a spiritual relationship with God. The traditional Jewish understanding of Shabbat is not that it is a time of relaxation, when we do nothing that we consider part of our work life. It is actually a time when we cease doing certain categories of work so we can focus our attention on other kinds of work. By starting the calendar of sacred time with Shabbat, the rabbis aimed at establishing Shabbat at the center of Jewish living.
Shabbat is important to me because it is a weekly reminder of the need to take time for my own spiritual restoration.
The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel Ben Meir, 1085-1174, Ramerupt, Northern France) explains that when the Biblical text says “the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions”, it means “the times which you shall set aside are sacred times.” In other words, when the Torah mentions the word “proclaim” in relation to Holy Days, it means determining or consciously setting aside time.
That is exactly what Shabbat is to me. Shabbat is the time I set aside to read, to think, to meditate. It is a day I spend with friends and family, savoring the gifts of life and loved ones. This special time is the greatest gift I can give to myself. I am reminded, on a weekly basis, that human beings need time for themselves so they can be productive members of the society on the remaining six days of the week. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “God In Search Of Man”, writes about the Jewish contribution of sanctifying time:
“Unless we learn how to appreciate and distinguish moments of time as we do things of space, unless we become sensitive to the uniqueness of individual events, the meaning of revelation will remain obscure. Indeed, uniqueness is a category that belongs more to the realm of time than to the realm of space. Two stones, two things in space may be alike; two hours in a person’s life or two ages in human history are never alike. What happened once will never happen again in the same sense. (…) It was the glory of Greece to have discovered the idea of cosmos, the world of space; it was the achievement of Israel to have experienced the world of time. Judaism claims that time is exceedingly relevant. Elusive as it may be, it is pregnant with the seeds of eternity. “
Shabbat and holidays are a reminder that we cannot let time pass without reflection. Every minute counts, and we must make an effort to not let opportunity pass us by. It is so easy to take time for granted… Unless we make an effort, we let the awareness of beauty slip from our lives, being so boggled down by the things we believe we must do. Shabbat comes to tell us that once a week we must stop and enjoy people and things instead of working. We use time to build better relationships with our family and our friends.
This year, when time is so fluid and we lose touch with how days are passing, I suggest we make an effort to enjoy the gift of time. I hope you will take Shabbat as an opportunity to set aside time (on a weekly basis) to strengthen your relationship with God and with your friends and family, and to increase your ability to love and be loved. Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Lia Bass