The Meaning of Work (Vayakhel-Pekudai)
My share of the work may be limited, but the fact that it is work makes it precious. -Helen Keller
Perhaps one of the commandments that are most repeated throughout the Torah is regarding observing the Sabbath. It has proven to be a central pillar of Jewish practice and tradition. The poet, Ahad Ha’am, famously stated that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The Sabbath has undoubtedly been a major factor in keeping the Jewish people as an unbroken, cohesive entity throughout generations and millennia.
The Torah, in each mention of the Sabbath, adds another detail, another nuance, to flesh out what the Sabbath experience is meant to entail. The Bechor Shor on Exodus 35:2-3 teases out additional clues as to what the Torah is prescribing regarding Sabbath observance.
The verse states: “Six days shall you work and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you.”
The Bechor Shor explains that during the six days of the week we are commanded to do the work that God has ordered (in this context the work of building the Tabernacle). However, on the seventh day, on the Sabbath, you shall perform no labor, even sacred, divinely commanded labor that God Himself ordered is forbidden to be performed on this day of rest, much less any labor that was not directly ordained by God.
The next verse provides additional detail: “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath.”
The Bechor Shor explains that the act of transferring fire may not seem arduous. To move a flame from an existing fire and let it take hold someplace else cannot be considered strenuous and involves almost no exertion. Nevertheless, the Torah considers it a form of labor. The many prohibited labors of the Sabbath may not seem to be “work” nor would we classify them as toil by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it is not only “work” in the modern sense of the word that is prohibited on the Sabbath but any type of creative action which changes or transforms the world around us. The Sabbath is not only a day to hold back from affecting the world, but a day to recharge our physical, emotional, and spiritual beings by retreating from creative activities for a day. If we’re constantly busy, constantly active, constantly absorbing and transmitting bits and bytes, our souls will never know inner peace or quiet. Especially in our era, the sounds of modernity threaten to drown out what is left of our humanity.
May we each achieve the next level of peace that a Sabbath respite offers.
To the Pesach Haggadah. It boggles the mind how every year there seems to be an exponential number of commentaries on it being published.