This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei Torah Reading: Exodus 35:1-40:38
Educators, child psychologists, even rabbis are expressing concern over the phenomenon of over-programmed kids. From school to hockey to band to gymnastics to soccer to karate . . . it seems as though many kids today have no time to just do nothing. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses shows us how this week's Torah reading provides us with a valuable guiding principle as we prioritize time for our children:
"In this Torah portion Moses tells the people that they are commanded to set aside the seventh day as a day of complete rest. It is a day in which no productive labor is allowed, a day in which the emphasis is put on "being" instead of "becoming" or "having."
Think about your own life. Is there enough time and room for simply stopping and being with one another? Stop now and take a breath. See how that feels. Think about ways to incorporate rest into the busy life of your family. Some families choose to put aside a day of the week and celebrate the Sabbath as a day of rest. Others pay attention to the principle of the day and figure out where to find the resting moments in life."
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, www.myjewishlearning.com
This week's Torah reading invites us to integrate Shabbat into our lives. Here are some accessible ways to weave the values of Shabbat into our week:
1. Make Friday evening family dinner night. Go around the table and have each family member talk about something good, exciting or challenging that happened during the week.
2. Make or purchase a tzedakah box (a Jewish piggy bank!) and on Friday afternoon have everyone in the family put a few coins in the box. Twice a year, count up what you've contributed and decide on a cause to send your donation.
3. Trying to control your family's intake of sweets or salty snacks? Ban them during the week and rename them "Shabbat Treats." Everyone in the family gets to pick one Shabbat Treat (candy, chips, whatever...) that they will enjoy during Shabbat.
4. Bless your children. Whatever parenting challenges you may have faced during the week, take a few moments at Friday evening dinner to treasure those little blessings in your life. Put your hand on each child's head and recite the blessing that has been part of our people's heritage since biblical times:
May God bless you and guard you.
May God's light shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and shower you with peace.
Then . . . and this is really important . . . then kiss each kid on the head!
Parashat Ki Teitzei Torah Reading: D'varim/ Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
Week after week, month after month, year after year, we return to the text of the Torah . . . the gift from God that our liturgy tells us is an expression of God's love for us. Among the many blessings this gift brings us is a treasure trove of values, helping us to prioritize our lives.
Just such a value is accessible to us in this week's parashah / Torah Portion. The people of Israel are, in the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy, being prepared for their entry into the land of Israel. In this context, the people are presented with a list of contingencies which provide military exemptions for those of age and ability to serve. The young man who is married for less than a year and/or has yet to build a home for his family is exempt from military service.
The message for us, living in a country where there is no compulsory military service? That family is important. Really important. Establishing and providing for your family in fact trumps other obligations.
Author Jessica Gribetz, in her rich sourcebook: Wise Words: Jewish Thoughts and Stories Through the Ages, outlines for us the essence of family for our people:
The family forms and defines us. Within its borders, our principles, ethics, self-worth and aspirations blossom or wither. Parents seek to replicate or refashion their own upbringing, hoping only for the best. But the best differs for each of us. I have only to look at my four girls, each with her own singular beauty, talents, and traits, to know that there is no one way to love and nurture. Our home is a hothouse and each flower has its needs. . . . Our biblical forefathers are presented to us, warts and all--because the message is not to deny human nature but to overcome its darker side.
Yes, one can make a case for the dysfunctionality of the families of Genesis an Exodus: parents showing favoritism for children (Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob) or being ready to sacrifice a child as an act of allegiance to an unseen God (Abraham), or simply a remote and uninvolved parent (Moses). Perhaps these glimpses into the imperfect family lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs have been preserved in order to provide us with role models who are as real and human as we are. In order to encourage us to overcome the darker side of our characters and to strive to provide for our families an environment in which each member of the family can thrive.
This imagery of family . . . of the context in which each individual can grow and follow his or her own path, in which love and nurturing are available in many different ways, is also my vision of community. This is my vision for our Torat Yisrael family.
Parashat Re'eh Torah Reading: D'varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
This week's Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar: "Three times a year--on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesah), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)--all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you."
I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Brad Artson, for the lovely insight that these verses teach us that celebration means giving and sharing as well as receiving. Rabbi Artson cites the Talmud that the gift one brings to God should be: "(Gittin 59a), "in accordance with one's own acumen." In other words, there is not one standardized gift that is acceptable to God when we come to celebrate the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot . . . or, indeed, any time we come together to pray, celebrate or learn. But rather the gift of spirit, devotion and engagement that we bring must be uniquely meaningful to each of us whatever our "acumen," whatever our level of Hebrew, of knowledge, or commitment.
I feel that there is another exceptional element to the gifts we bring to God when we gather before God not empty-handed: I have very vivid memories of my parents handing me a few coins to bring to Sunday School for me to donate to "Keren Ami," a fund for the very young state of Israel. The gift I brought was actually given to me from others, from my parents, with the understanding that I would, in turn, give that gift to others.
The dynamic of the gifts we bring to God is a bit different . . . for the gifts we offer God at the time of our celebrations with God are the gifts that God blessed us with in the first place! Our spirits, our families and friends, our community . . . these are all our blessings. And it is in community, sitting with family and friends, opening our hearts to God that we give share with God the joy of our Festivals and the peace of our Sabbaths.