It’s Not About You
The mitzvah of Shabbat appears once again in this week’s Torah portion. A confusion about Shabbat is what defines “work” that is forbidden on this day. This uncertainty stems from the seemingly arbitrary selection of what is prohibited and what is permitted. For instance, it’s hard to understand why the Torah would allow one to walk a lengthy distance to synagogue in the heat, working up a good sweat, but at the same time forbid flicking on a light switch. Trust me, walking to shul on a Saturday morning in the Florida August heat is a lot more work than turning on the lights.
In Hebrew there are two words for “work”: avodah and melacha. Avodah is strenuous work that requires physical exertion, whereas melacha refers specifically to creative work. Shabbat laws focus on the latter, the creative type, and not the former. While it is true that it may not be in the spirit of the Sabbath day to do tasks that require a lot of physical exertion, the “work” that the Torah is concerned about is of the creative nature – the melacha variety.
Still it’s a bit nebulous. What exactly is creative work? Each person has his own definition of what may be creative. After all, my art may be your trash. Here we need to rely on the oral tradition for some definitions. The Oral Law was eventually written down in the Talmud, completed approximately in the year 500 CE. Until then, it remained true to its name as a tradition that was passed down to each successive generations, orally from Moshe onward. (Come to my Crash Course in Jewish History this Wednesday evening to find out more.)
The past couple of Torah portions have been giving us numerous details of how the Mishkan/Tabernacle was to be made and this week all those details get repeated. Last week, in the midst of the description, Moshe is told, “However, you must observe My Sabbaths…” However is the operative word as it connects the preceding section to the present one. In the midst of detailing the Mishkan’s construction, the Torah interrupts the process by telling us, “However do not do so on Shabbat!”
Tradition teaches that the proximity of these two sections defines creative/melacha work. Namely those specific tasks necessary in the construction of the Mishkan. Any type of work employed to make the Mishkan (and there were 39 categories of these) became the prototype of work/melacha forbidden on Shabbat.
Still the issue remains as to why the Mishkan construction became the defining symbol of work for Shabbat. Is there some lesson that can be derived from the connection of the two?
To understand this we need to go way back to when we first meet God in the Torah where we find Him creating a Universe. This is the primary definition of God – the Creator – and hints that the greatest expressions of God are related to Creativity.
Indeed we often feel that the most powerful moments in our lives are when we utilize our talents to their fullest to create and express ourselves in a fashion that we never have done before. Self-actualization makes it to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because Creativity – making things, forming them and constructing – are the greatest expressions of Godliness in us. It is where we best see and feel our Tzelem Elokim, our Image of God.
This is why when we get into a “zone” we lose track of time. All other needs – food, drink, sleep, family, every-day obligations – get pushed aside and are deemed secondary. Pushing yourself to utilize your talents, talents that you have developed over years and even decades, to their fullest degree, while working on all cylinders and reaching deep into yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually is an incredible high. It is literally addicting and everything else gets tuned out as petty distraction since these are the moments when we feel most alive!
The power of Creativity is so great that when we cannot experience it ourselves, we pay good money to see others living it. We do this when watching sporting events, plays, movies, view art at museums and the like. There is no greater pleasure in life than the pleasure of Creativity.
And when you’re up on the stage it’s so unbelievable
How they adore you
In all of Jewish history there was no greater expression of Creativity on a national level than the effort that went into building the most important structure that was the nexus point between God and Man. And that place was the Mishkan. Being so central and crucial, it demanded the utmost in collective creativity and energy by the Israelite nation.
Nevertheless, God tells the Jewish people, “But not on Shabbat”. No matter how important this structure may have been, no matter how crucial it was to the connection between God and Man, no matter how much it expressed the most holy usage of man’s creative powers – God still demands that it not be made on the Sabbath.
And the reason for this is to offset the danger of the false god of Creativity – its counterfeit, Power. The danger inherent in the power of Creativity is that our creations, our efforts, our pushing ourselves to the limit can become self-serving and thereby lose their holy purpose. They become gods in and of themselves, and not for God. And when that happens, we become a god in our own eyes and forget the One True God who gave us these gifts.
We see this all the time when we encounter the utter arrogance of super-creative and talented people who fall into this trap of self-adoration. Or politicians who get drunk on their own power and feel they are above all laws and are free to do whatever they want, kill whomever they wish and attack any nation they covet.
But then your wife seems to think you’re losing your sanity
Is there no way out?
To avoid this dangerous pitfall, we have Shabbat where God tells us to stop. He demands we stop being like Him through Creating, and to be like Him through Rest, as He did on Day 7 of Creation. He instructs us to be God-like not by doing but by being. Don’t make anymore, don’t do anymore, just stop, be quiet, shhh. Just be.
No matter how holy and important our tasks in life may seem in our eyes – and nothing was more important than making the Mishkan – there comes a day in every week where God tells us to cease and stop. Only when we refrain from our efforts can they be used for a greater good and not just for our own good. Only through Shabbat will our God-given talents, our creative melacha become Holy and not merely an expression of the fake and false god of Self.