Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat
Ki Tisa 5765
Re-Souling Ourselves?


For a year-and-one-half now I have been serving a congregation whose religious school operates on Shabbat. It's not so much by choice, but rather by circumstances, as the congregation has shared sacred space in a Presbyterian Church for 40 years, and they use all the classrooms pace on Sundays for their school.

Working as a Jewish professional has always presented challenges to finding space and time for Shabbat. This just further complicates things.

It's not that far a stretch to rationalize operating religious school on Shabbat. It is, after all, work that is Lashem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. And, for a liberal Jew, it shouldn't be that difficult to accept that rationalization, right?

Yet we get into all sorts of blurry lines here. I do everything I can to avoid handling money - if pizza is coming for the confirmation class, we use a credit card. I'll collect tzedakah boxes but won't count the money. I try to put paychecks in boxes before Shabbat. If a school event has an extra charge, we try to collect all payments in advance. And so on. The realities sometimes work out differently from the ideal.

So how is the example we adults are setting instilling within our students the importance of Shabbat as expressed in the words of 31:16-17, the words of the "v'shamru." And especially in light of the preceding verses that condemn Shabbat violators to death, and that order the Shabbat to be a complete rest.

The rabbis went a long way to solving the practical issues. While Gd may have provided a double portion of manna in the wilderness, in later years, we had to fend for ourselves. And animals still had to be milked, meals eaten, etc. And so the rabbis used other pieces of text to help clarify what it meant to keep Shabbat.

We "shabbat" (cease?) on Shabbat for many reasons, among them that Gd commanded us to do so. And because doing so we act in imitation of Gd during creation. Yet, we are not Gd. So how can our "shabbating" be exactly like Gd's - a truly complete "shabbating?" It cannot. Our "shabbating" is perforce less the "shabbating" that Gd did on the 7th day. We can, and should, strive for that complete rest, but we'll never quite get there.

In our tradition, learning has not been considered an activity prevented on Shabbat. If it were, we wouldn't be reading from the Torah on Shabbat, because, in building a fence a round the Torah, the rabbis would want to prevent even the possibility of learning something when the Torah was read! (I know it's a convoluted argument, but it works, sort of.) Therefore, I would conclude that learning is permitted on Shabbat. While some learning comes through experience, most learning requires some teaching, and someone to do the teaching. Torah, indeed, teaches, in an of itself, yet our own history and tradition have shown us that a little help with interpretation is required. And it is learned teachers-rabbis, educators, elders, parents, etc. that help provide this interpretation.

So, if learning Torah on Shabbat is permitted, teaching Torah on Shabbat must also be permitted. If it wasn't, I know a lot of rabbis that are in big trouble. And I would venture that anything we teach in a Jewish religious school is teaching Torah. There's a nice rationalization we can use. That I can use. Sort of.

The issues go on and on. Should a class go on a field trip on Shabbat? Should it visit a soup kitchen and make and serve food? Should it make sandwiches to be taken to shelters? Should it watch a video or DVD? We have many large assemblies and programs. Often, the sound system can't be set up in advance before Shabbat. Is it OK to set it up and use it? Should we have our faculty meetings after school on Shabbat as has traditionally been done?

I am certain that for every one of these questions, a suitably acceptable modern liberal interpretative workaround can be formulated. Yet, still, for me, the rationalizations often fall short. My discomfort with "working" on Shabbat remains. (Never mind that my liberal sensibilities already permit me to use my musical talents on instruments on Shabbat in service to enhancing the worship experience of others and myself.) Never mind that I can't afford to live anywhere near where I work, so I must drive to and from the synagogue on Shabbat.

I have been searching for something to help me with this inner dilemma. I think I may have found something, and it has been staring me in the face for a long time.

At the end of the v'shamru, the last words of v. 31:17 it says "Shabbat vayinafash." The Hebrew construction of this verb root, which means "to be refreshed" is, in this case, reflexive, that is, it is to cause oneself to be refreshed. As the root, in noun form can also mean "soul" it is as if Gd were "re-souling" Gd's-self. (Interestingly enough, this same verb form, the niphal, is usually simple passive form of a verb, and is only reflexive in some cases. Interesting, because while we might think of Shabbat as a time when we should be passive, it really is more a time for being reflexive!)

So, in our best efforts to imitate Gd and observe Shabbat, we are called upon to "refresh ourselves" or "restore our own soul to ourself." There is little doubt in my mind that the overall feeling I get when religious school is in session, despite the exhaustion it can produce, is refreshing and restorative. As tired as I may come away from several hours of dealing with students, teachers, parents and more, I can say that I do come away refreshed, renewed, with a restored soul ready to go on into the week.

Now there's an approach that will work for me. For now. What about you? What will enable you to refresh yourself, to restore your own soul, on Shabbat? Find it, and do it, whatever it is. If it is true rest, then rest. If it is study, study. If it is going to shul, then go to shul. If it's a Shabbat walk and a nap, then walk and nap. There are other more secular things you can do that I won't list here, as each of us must make a choice, and, for my part, I'd rather not encourage you to consider them-but, then again, if that is what accomplishes your "shabbating" who am I to judge?

U'vayom hashvi'i, shavat vayinash. And on the seventh day (Gd) "shabbated" and "refreshed Gd's-self." That is how we must each "guard" and "do" ("observe," my foot! The word is la'asot, from the root meaning "to do." Nu, how does one "do ceasing?" You figure it out.)

Shabbat Shalom,


©  2005  by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous musings on the same parasha:

Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb

Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan

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