Drash on Parashat Vayakhel
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, VIC
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) once said that “all …life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day”.
Vayakhel opens with Moshe assembling the people and reiterating the mitzvah to observe Shabbat. “On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God” (Exodus 35:2).
What is Shabbat to us today? How do we practice Shabbat, and what does Shabbat achieve for us?
In the era of the Torah, the day of rest was certainly a radical concept, even more so was the fact that there was an obligation to provide that day of rest to your employees and to your slaves. The mitzvah was both a moral teaching and a dramatic shift from the social norms of the day.
In modernity only a small percentage of the Jewish population is halachically observant, what we would call “shomer Shabbat” or Sabbath observant, as defined by the orthodox practices. Yet, a huge part of the Jewish population observes Shabbat as they define it, often interweaving the religious with cultural practice through family dinners and lunches, candle lighting, Kiddush and motzi or any number of other observances.
While the ‘day of rest’ is the image Shabbat evokes for most, Shabbat always has the potential to be more than restful or reflective. The mystics believed it was the opportunity to become spiritually elevated, and for us to strive for an expanded consciousness.
Our synagogues and homes are transformed as we bring out special candles and candle sticks, Kiddush cups, challah boards and covers, and throughout many of these practices there is a mystical influence, primarily from the mystics of Tsfat.
Eduard Shyfrin author, businessman, and student of Jewish mysticism posits, “The Hebrew word for blessing is ‘bracha,’ which comes from the same Hebrew root as the word ‘bereicha’ or water channel. If a person is blessed, we can receive abundant godliness. God’s blessing of the Sabbath means that all of the spiritual channels are open at that time.” The Kabbalistic explanations of the Sabbath, he says, provide us with the reasons why and how we should observe the Sabbath. “We are obliged to observe the Sabbath commandments, but at the same time, we should remember that it is a great privilege given to us” [i].
We sanctify Shabbat and are sanctified through the sharing of Kiddush, which while we generally associate with the prayer over wine, is also from the same root word as kiddushin, which relates to marriage. On Shabbat, we are binding ourselves to God much as a husband and wife bind themselves to each other through kiddushin.
Even the practices of kiddushin, the sheva brachot and seven circles all tie back to the seven days of creation, the seven days of the week, the seven circles as we wrap the tefillin around our arms and say words from the wedding ceremony “ve’erastich li le’olam, ve’eratsich li betzedek uvemishpat”, ‘I bind myself to you for eternity, I bind myself to you in justice and judgement’. On Shabbat, we say Kiddush and are sanctified, as we seek the most profound level of intimacy with God.
The most famous mystical poem, written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, is Lecha Dodi. Its driving imagery of a marriage between the masculine and the feminine aspects of God, the Shekinah and Malchut, defines Shabbat for the mystic. Lecha Dodi invites us to meet the bride, or for the bride to come to us “boi kalah, boi kalah”, which also invites us to prepare for this sacred day – this day of kedushah.
Alkabetz’s focus is on love and physical love as the metaphor for the spiritual love between God and the people of Israel. The metaphor extends to the re-unification of Israel and the Shekinah (feminine aspect of God) caused by the exile from the Garden of Eden.
One of the greatest mystical writers, Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi (1534 – 1572) of Tsfat, taught that Creation began with tzimtzum, God contracting in order to allow the creation of matter / the world. On Shabbat, God did not create, but rested. Even when resting, God’s light however was not withdrawn; rather it was allowed to flow and to penetrate the universe. God ceased creating, on Shabbat, but necessarily continued to sustain the world or the world would have ceased to be.
Both last week’s Torah portion Ki Tisa and this week’s Vayakhel emphasise the mitzvah or commandment to keep Shabbat. The old adage that it is shabbat which ‘keeps us’ reflects just how fundamental Shabbat remains to our weekly cycle, our annual cycle, and remains a profound part of the modern Jewish experience. The world does not cease to be if observation of Shabbat is not part of our practice but for many of us, God’s light flows better when we can.
It would be no exaggeration to call the Sabbath the day of Kabbalah. On the Sabbath, the light of the upper world bursts into the profane world in which man lives during the six days of the week. The light of the Sabbath endures into the ensuing week, growing gradually dimmer, to be relieved in the middle of the week by the rising light of the next Sabbath. It is the day on which a special pneuma, the Sabbath – soul enters into the believer, enabling him to participate in the right way in this day, which shares more than any other day in the secrets of the pneumatic world. (Gershom Scholem; On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism p.139)