Ki Tisa has a tremendous amount going on - for instance, the Golden Calf and the 13 attributes of God, Moses' radiance and veil - but I hope we'll talk about those tomorrow morning. Tonight I want to focus on one particular part of the parasha, and that is - Shabbat.
Exodus / Shemot 31:15-17 - Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest (shabbat shabbaton), holy to the Lord…(16) The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. (17) It shall be a sign for all time between me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.
Does this sound familiar….? Of course - it's the text of the V'shamru, which we just sang a few minutes ago. But look more closely at the language in verse 15 -shabbat shabbaton. What is the significance of this grammatic emphasis?
There are two key items I want to link together tonight. One is the language of the parasha, this shabbat shabbaton. And the other is our place in the calendar - that moveable feast which keeps us connected to the foundation of Judaism. Even and especially over the millenia in which we did not have a geographic home, we have always had the calendar, wherever we go.
So, here we are in the weeks leading up to Pesach, in the midst of the "four parashiyot," the four special Torah readings which are added to the usual portion for each week. A few weeks ago it was Shabbat Shekalim, the census; then it was Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat before Purim, reminding us of Amalek (and, by implication, preparing us for Haman)… and now it's Shabbat Parah. This shabbat, we add the section from Numbers which discusses the strange ritual of the ashes of the perfect red heifer which are used to purify after contact with death.
I don't want to dwell on this ritual tonight, but only to focus on the idea that this special parasha is about separation and purification, leaving behind one identity and becoming new, different - separating what we have been from what we will be. Now what does THAT remind us of… Shabbat and Havdalah, right?
Which brings us back to "shabbat shabbaton." What is this interesting construction and what does it signify?
First, notice where it appears in the parasha. God gives Moses incredibly detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle - even a bit tedious, really, to read. And guess what, the instructions are structured in seven sections (what is THAT reminiscent of?). And the seventh one begins, "HOWEVER" and then the commandment regarding the "shabbat shabbaton."
…However? In other words, build this Tabernacle; however, interrupt your building when Shabbat arrives.
So we have instructions to build the Tabernacle - and the first six sections are all about construction - and the seventh is to interrupt even this extraordinarily important construction to observe Shabbat!
In other words, Shabbat is the 7th portion – the completion – of the instructions for the tabernacle. And this reminds us of what? Creation - God created the world in six days & completed creation on the 7th. .
Shabbat is not just an absence of doing, it is a creative process all its own - more on that in a moment.
So, we learn from this "however" that time - Shabbat - is more important than space - the tabernacle - and God wants our time more than our material “stuff” - even the building of a temple to be God's place in our midst.
In fact, in a wonderful resonant twist, one of God’s names is MAKOM, the place – in other words, the physical places are really ephemeral, illusions, God is the REAL “place” - and wherever you go, that Place is with you.
So what do we have so far?
We have a special shabbat of separation and purification. We have the mitzvah of "shabbat shabbaton," which is so important it must interrupt even the building of the tabernacle. Now, this term - shabbat shabbaton.
The Lubavitcher rebbe says "shabbat" means to stop our normal work, and "shabbaton" means to begin our special Shabbat activity. Rashi, our 11th century endless source of insight into Torah, says "shabbat shabbaton" is not a "casual" rest. It's not "I'm tired, I'll rest." Even if we are not tired on Friday night, we still observer Shabbat! No, this is a rest which is profoundly creative, and in fact transformative.
Shabbat doesn't mean simply that we stop doing certain things. It also means that we do certain other things. It's not a day to recover from fatigue in the ordinary sense. It's a day in which to examine ourselves, spend the day on God's work rather than what the employer needs or the house needs or even the self thinks it needs. It's a day to work on being better as a person in God's eyes and to start the next week transformed.
If we are going to talk about Shabbat we have to see what Heschel has to say. If you have not read "The Sabbath" lately or at all, I must recommend it to your attention. Heschel points out most wonderfully that the first time in Genesis we encounter the word kadosh, holy, it is not about a thing - not about light, or earth, or man, or animals - but about - yes - Shabbat. "And God blessed the seventh day and made it kadosh, holy" - no OBJECT is so sanctified.
So, this is a special shabbat parah, or shabbat of purification and rededication. And today we are given the commandment to observe shabbat shabbaton, a shabbat of very special and complete rest and transformation.
It’s a day to devote to God’s work instead of our everyday work – not “casual” rest when we do nothing, but transformative rest when we undertake very specific activities which are not “work” but which teach us, change us. This is the special kind of "rest" which actually completes us and our work - just as it completed God's work of creation, and the Israelites' work on the tabernacle.
What a gift – not to be wasted - and the most precious evidence of Israel's chosenness. We could just stand here & read Heschel all evening - but here is one more wonderful thought he offers. If Shabbat is a time when God completed creation - not just a day of non-activity - then what was created on this day? Heschel tells us, "What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose…This then is the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space [and material goods]; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate."
With this, then we can truly understand the words of Ahad Ha-am, the 19th century Zionist, who wrote, "More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel."
Shabbat can transform us, if we will allow God the time to do so.