Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Yitro 5754
January 29, 1994 17 Shvat 5754
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It takes a long time to acquire a full appreciation of Judaism. Like most rambunctious kids, I found Shabbat constraining, especially without the support system of a large Jewish community. I looked forward to playing ping-pong after shul in the morning or walking over to the nearby YMCA for a game of basketball and a swim in the afternoon. My ambition as a kid was to show the world that Jews could play sports. The exceptional Shabbat meals, or the Friday evening stroll down Pottstown's main street with my father when there were no late Friday- evening services, or studying with him on Saturday afternoon, or the fun snack in the synagogue Saturday evening between Minhah and Ma'ariv (seudah shelishit) were not quite enough to harness my energy or my loyalty. What did the trick, was my father's willingness to be flexible, until Ramah (JTS's summer camping program) overwhelmed me with the power of Shabbat in a communal setting. Today, I believe, along with Ahad Ha-Am, that "more than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."
I write of Shabbat because this week's parashah makes it the linchpin of the Ten Commandments and Judaism. Let me start with a small midrashic comment that illuminates a large canvas. The text of the fourth commandment, which sanctifies the seventh day, declares: "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God (Exodus 20: 9 - 10)." What strikes our ancient commentator is the word "all." Is it really possible for anyone ever to finish all of his or her work in six days? Of course not, and so we must understand the Torah as saying that "we should rest as if all our work were done."
The Shabbat is our country home which we can reach easily without hours of hard driving. Shabbat is a span of time that transforms the space in which we live all week into a holy place where we might decompress and reconnect - but only if we leave our weekday cares behind. It does not work if we do not go beyond the letter of the law to its invigorating spirit. As the clock stops before sunset, we need to set aside both our manual and mental labors in order to enter another realm of existence. The two Shabbat candles, each burning quietly with a single wick, symbolize the quest for total rest, emotional as well as physical.
For me, this transformation begins to happen during Kabbalat Shabbat services at JTS. It is the most lyrical and musical service of the week. As students and faculty join in song, weary but happy that Shabbat has arrived once more, I feel a spirit of relaxation come over me that opens the door to that extra measure of soulfulness which animates us on Shabbat. The echoes of eternity resonate again in my inner being. Our prayers speak of Shabbat as "the loveliest of days," a status we denote by refusing to confer a name to any other day of the week. In Hebrew, the days of the week are merely numbered in reference to Shabbat. The higher the number, the closer we come again to the ultimate realm of existence. Indeed, Shabbat is all that is left from the Garden of Eden, a dim memory of perfection expressed in moments of holiness. It also anticipates the restoration of that blessed state at the end of time through personal experience. Each week we relive a moment of timelessness which promises that creation shall end in redemption. The poem with which we welcome the Sabbath, Lekha Dodi, "O Come my Beloved," affirms our faith in this linkage as it moves bracingly from the Shabbat of the here-and-now to a vision of national redemption in messianic age. Shabbat is the assurance that history will come full- circle, ending where it started in timeless perfection. Or to paraphrase Lekha Dodi's sixteenth-century author, Shlomo Alkabetz, not only is Shabbat the font of all blessing, but its very conception foreshadows the end of days.
By contracting our outer life we expand our inner world. For twenty-four hours we withdraw from all tinkering and tampering. We slow down to reconnect with our loved ones, with our community, and with God. On Friday evening, at dinner after services, we have time to talk about the events of the week, about the meaning of life. With patience and love we can even manage to open the shutters that usually conceal the thoughts and anxieties of our children and peek in to see what is on their minds. Sacred time cements the bonds of family.
Shabbat asserts afresh God's sovereignty. For all our vaunted machines and awesome power, we are but temporary residents on a glorious planet in a cosmos beyond imagination. Shabbat reminds us of our duty to care for this speck of life and consciousness in the universe, and to turn this world over to our children in working order, habitable and uplifting. We study Torah to explore the mind of God and to acknowledge that we ought not do everything of which we are capable. By living with less, we enlarge our souls.
At Shabbat's end, we separate sacred time from profane with the ceremony of havdalah, a Hebrew term which means to distinguish. Without distinctions, there can be no sense of holiness. The twisted candle with its many wicks burns restlessly, signifying the turmoil of the everyday world that we are about to reenter. This is a threshold moment, tinged with sadness. Though we affirm our readiness to proceed - "Behold, God is my deliverance. I am confident and unafraid." we feel depleted as the spirit of Shabbat takes leave from our midst. To revive our strength, we inhale the fragrant aroma of assorted spices, itself a reminder of the treasure just departed. And at the end, we again give voice to our yearning for redemption by singing of the prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah. As the foretaste of universal peace, Shabbat sustains us in an unredeemed world.
Rarely have theology and ritual converged to create a more expressive and wholesome religious experience than in the Jewish Sabbath. Like the miniature medieval tower in which the spices of havdalah are often kept, it has the power to protect Judaism both in times of persecution and prosperity.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,