This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, reiterates the command regarding Shabbat observance. “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord…” Around this commandment Judaism constructs the many details of Shabbat observance in particular its demand that we refrain from working on this day. The Talmud self consciously remarks that these myriad laws of Shabbat restrictions were like mountains suspended by a thread. In this portion the thread is revealed.
The remainder of the portion occupies itself with the details of the tabernacle’s construction. And so the rabbis reasoned that all the labors detailed in constructing the tabernacle are forbidden on Shabbat. There are 39 labors in all. There are sub-categories of work and sub-sub categories. There are fences around the laws and fences around the fences. The mountains have become endlessly magnified. At times the mountains and fences obscure the essence of Shabbat.
What is the essence of this extraordinary day? In his masterpiece, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that Shabbat is a palace in time. We construct this palace by refraining from work, by saying no to weekday activities. Today it has become increasingly difficult to put the weekday aside. Blackberries and iPhones have blurred the line between work and home. Facebook and Twitter have blurred the line between home and work.
Recently my extended family and I traveled together on our first cruise. I could have done without the endless buffets and the thousands of other travelers, but I rejoiced in the fact that my Blackberry was unable to get any signal when at sea. (Ok I confess, it took me some time to adjust to this.) Our children could not text their friends or write on someone’s Wall. Every evening we gathered for a family dinner with only the distractions of the ocean’s waves outside the windows. We were left to talking to each other—and we relished in it.
That is the essence of Shabbat, a day that returns people to their families and friends, a day that demands that we speak with each other rather than in the broken phrases of email and BBM. There are great advantages of today’s technologies. There are also great advantages found in our tradition and its Sabbath day. Heschel writes: “To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air of which we inhale when we call it a delight.”
Each of us can construct this day for ourselves. In fact it is not even dependent on our congregation’s services. The palace in time can always be built—each and every week. There is no heavy lifting involved. It is only a matter of following the thread back to the Torah, placing the weekday aside and delighting in one extraordinary day.