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Drash on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei - Hachodesh 2013

To Live and Not Die
A Drash for Shabbat Vayakhel/Pekudei/Hachodesh
Rabbi Don Levy

Years ago, when I served in the military (in the USA) I became used to cigarette smoking as a habit indulged by many of the people around me.  It was just part of the military culture.  The mechanics of lighting, tending, smoking, and dousing cigarettes were, for many, a structure that kept their hands busy and occupied during long duty days and nights.  Additionally, the stimulant nicotine provided a boost to keep the smoker alert during long watches.  Later, when the armed forces began pushing healthy living as a readiness issue, smoking in the military workplace became rarer and rarer and ultimately forbidden.

In civilian life, smoking was not as common a habit even 30 years ago.  And in Progressive Jewish circles it has long been a rare indulgence.  So it used to mystify me that smoking among Orthodox men was, until fairly recently, quite normative.  Among my Orthodox cousins, smoke breaks or smoking at one’s desk were a common part of life.  Except on Shabbat.  After that rush to smoke one last cigarette before candle-lighting time, the Orthodox smoker quits ‘cold turkey’ once every seven days – for 25 hours, and then after Havdallah usually lights up the first one of the new week with relish.  Of course, the smoker who is observant of Halachah will not light up on Shabbat since we are instructed in this week’s Torah portion: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)  That same instruction yields a string of prohibitions regarding Shabbat:  on driving, use of electricity, cooking, and the like.  To someone who believes literally that it is the will of God that no fire be kindled on the Sabbath day, it makes sense to scrupulously avoid any action that could be construed as kindling a fire.  And why would one want to transgress God’s law, either wilfully or inadvertently?  So the believer avoids anything that alludes to the lighting – and by extension, the dousing – of fire.  Also, anything that could be construed as melachah – work or, according to one understanding, anything that alludes to creation.  Because in the verse immediately preceding the one cited above, we’re told “whoever does any melachah on [the Sabbath] will die.”

Now the statement that the one not ceasing his work on Shabbat will die can be taken to understand that he will be liable for the death penalty for transgressing God’s law.  And surely, this is the understanding of many Jews:  the traditionalist and the progressive alike.  For the traditionalist, it can be a strong motivation to avoid transgressing it.  For the progressive, it is often taken as one of many ‘proofs’ that the Torah, rather than being a statement of God’s love for us, is a document depicting a judgemental and vindictive deity.  They’re both right in a sense, and yet – there’s another way to read the verse in question.

If we look at Shabbat less as a divine imperative and more as a divine gift, then the statement “whoever does any melachah on [the Sabbath] will die,” takes on a much different meaning.  The corollary is “whoever ceases from melachah will live.”  Instead of seeing Shabbat as an onus, we can see it as a lifesaver.  As a ticket to freedom.  Because it’s Shabbat, I am freed from the stress of my everyday toil.  As people who live in an age of over-work, over-programming, and over-achievement, we need the rest that Shabbat brings.  And the Torah grants it to us.  But if so, why are so many Progressive Jews not buying?

The answer is complex, but I think it has something to do with the way that contemporary life tends to turn us into objects.  We internalise the message that our achievements are our essence as individuals.  Look, I’m not knocking achievement – rather the mindset makes us slaves to our next feat.  Every day I meet Jews who have bought into the message that our accomplishments are what define us.  When we no longer accomplish, our lives cease to be worthwhile.  We allow contemporary life to turn us into objects, and we also turn those around us into objects.  Take the discussion over euthanasia and the value of going against conventional morality to enable people to experience ‘a good death.’  On one hand, it is seen as good to imagine that we don’t need to consider ourselves slaves to the possibility of a drawn-out, painful, messy death.  On the other hand, I find myself constantly cringing when I hear Jews proclaim that they want to check out of life as soon as they become dependent, or unable to achieve the things that they’ve allowed to define them.

In this mindset, relationships become worthwhile only for the benefit they bring us.  When that benefit no longer exists, the relationship is disposable.  One only need look around us to see that this is the extent to which we have allowed the value of relationships to become diminished.  And this is antithetical to the message of Judaism:  that our essence as individuals is the divine spark within us.  “So God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27)  If God, in whose image we’re made, can step back from the work of creation and just be, then we too have the privilege of periodically stepping back from our melachah to just be.  To take stock.  To think.  Didn’t the philosopher Descartes proclaim:  I think, therefore I am?  To me, that sounds a lot better than I work, therefore I am.  If our essence as individuals resides in our productivity, then woe to us when we stop being productive.

This is why, in the Kiddush that we offer at the onset of Shabbat, we acknowledge the Sabbath’s serving as a double remembrance to us.  We acknowledge it as zecher lema’aseh vereishit, a memorial to the act of creation; when we cease from our toil on the seventh day in imitation of God, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty.  And we also acknowledge it as zecher litzi’at Mitzrayim, a memorial to the exit from Egypt; since God led us out of slavery, we don’t need to be slaves to the constant need to accomplish.  A slave’s value is in his productivity.  A free person’s value is in his life.  Even when we are not productive, our lives have intrinsic value and are not disposable.  If we interrupt our productivity for one day a week, we will regularly remind ourselves of this truth.  It’s a reminder we need, if we are going to live, and not die.

And regarding smoking on Shabbat?  If you’re still smoking, even if you don’t think God cares whether you do it on Shabbat or not, resolve to rest from this habit on this coming Sabbath.  And even better:  enlist your friends and loved ones – those non-disposable relationships in your life – to give you the positive encouragement you need to take the next Shabbat as an occasion to quit for good.  So that you may live, and not die.  Shabbat shalom!

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