The Religious Significance of Our Relationships

Vayak-hel By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Feb 26, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

William Safire (z”l), in a New York Times “On Language” column that walks a thin line between journalism and a Sherlock Holmes mystery, directed his attention to the adage that anyone who has spent time perusing real estate listings has come across: the phrase, “Location, location, location.” Safire, on one of what he called his “phrasedick assignments” (a word that will undoubtedly find its way into a modern Yiddish dictionary), identified a number of possible sources for the expression, but settled on a classified ad in the Chicago Tribune from 1926 describing a property close to Rogers Park (New York Times, June 26, 2009). While I give him credit for identifying the first use of the saying in English print, there is no doubt that the idea is Rabbinic in origin.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism, our Sages sought to make Judaism relevant to a people dispersed and searching for a religious identity. They meticulously mined the Torah, analyzing letters, words, and phrases in pursuit of belief, practice, and ritual that would be instructive and authoritative. Their portable Judaism lives on today, and is what we all recognize as common Jewish practice. Among the many methods of explicating verses and devising halakhah, the Rabbis list s’michut parashiyot (connection of phrases). The essential idea is that proximity of biblical verses suggests a correlation of their greater subject matters. Or, in our common parlance: “Location, location, location.” This week, we have an example that illustrates the method.

A short injunction about Shabbat features prominently at the beginning of Parashat Va-yak·hel:

These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exod. 35:1b–3)

However, instead of elaborating on the particulars of Shabbat—as the text does four chapters before (31:12–18)—chapter 35 of Exodus launches into a description of a fund-raising appeal for, and some of the details of, building the mishkan and its fittings. For those of us casually reviewing the text, the two and a half verses on Shabbat read as yet another repetitive biblical non sequitur joining the ranks of “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” and “I am the Lord your God,” both of which appear seemingly randomly throughout the Torah. To the Rabbinic mind, however, we have opened the conversation of the motivation behind the specific observances of Shabbat.

According to the Mishnah, there are 39 primary prohibited actions of creation on Shabbat. This number is derived from the numerical value of the letters that make up the phrase eleh ha-devarim (these are the things) in our passage above. Because of the juxtaposition of that phrase with the details of the construction of the mishkan, Rabbi Hanina bar Hama assumes that what is prohibited on Shabbat are any of the actions that are connected with the construction of the Tabernacle (BT Shabbat 49b). Thus, we are presented with the method of s’michut parashiyot (along with a few other methods that we will not delve into here). The text presents the 39 prohibitions of Shabbat and immediately follows with instructions about the mishkan, so of course we must assume that one is connected to the other: “Location, location, location.”

For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the list of prohibited actions not only served as a guide for observance, but, as Robert Goldenberg points out in his article “Law and Spirit in Talmudic Religion,” the expressed will of God. As Goldenberg writes, “It was not enough to believe that God’s will was expressed through the law; instead, it was necessary to see that God’s will was the law, precisely in its quality as law—fully worked out, highly detailed, leaving nothing to chance or to private interpretation” (Jewish Spirituality, ed. Arthur Green, Vol. 1, 244). But where we might assume that the laws of Shabbat came to us from Moses on Mount Sinai, Goldenberg states, remarkably, that it was the power of the Rabbis that defined the will of God, “like a pitch approaching home plate; just as the pitch is neither a ball nor a strike until the umpire gives a ruling, so too ‘God’s will’ had no content at all until the rabbis’ teaching turned it into law” (ibid).

From this argument, there seems to be a pretty flimsy connection between the law we observe and the will of God. If the laws are human and the will divine, what is the point of following the law? Or, more important, what is the authority of that law? As logical as we can make the case for the laws by deploying all sorts of methods of interpretation and explication (and I am not necessarily positing that it is totally logical in the Western sense), for a Jew in the modern period without a Temple, relying on the rabbinic sleight of hand, this doesn’t offer much religious meaning for Shabbat observance. So where does that leave us?

Referencing the early philosopher Philo, Goldenberg answers, “the significance of the various commandments in the Torah lies in what they teach—that is, what they contribute to the life of the spirit—and the provisions of the laws are merely a necessary means of conveying this meaning, no more” (ibid, 233). While we may be inclined to jettison observance in favor of the spirit behind that law (a stance early Christianity adopted), halakhah is the essential framework within which we express what is taught in the Torah.

What we learn from Goldenberg is that it is the voice of the Rabbis that contextualizes the will of God in a system meaningful to their communities. This exercise must be revisited in each generation. Just as the Rabbis of the Talmud looked to the mishkan to define the parameters of work for their age (and prohibited reaping, sowing, ploughing, and threshing), so too we must look to our teachers to provide contemporary meaning for that same spirit. What is work in our day that we must put aside for Shabbat? What is creating, that we must cease to imitate God? There is no better feeling in my week than the moment when I power down my iPhone shortly before candle lighting on Friday afternoon. This is something the Sages of the Talmud could never envision, but which to me conveys a contemporary meaning to Shabbat and puts me in profound relationship with my Tradition.

As much as location was important to real estate and Rabbinic interpretation, the driving factor for contemporary religious meaning is: relationship, relationship, relationship. Relationship to Torah; relationship to the life of the spirit; relationship of law to meaning.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.