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Shabbat: Why Do We Rest?
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You know, you feel kind of dumb as the other guy walks out to get a glass of brandy. You quickly open your Bible, you quickly flip through the Genesis, the Exodus; you just kind of glance at these stories, and it’s like you are just left with this big question mark here: what does God do all day long? How could the Bible not talk about what God does all day long? Isn’t the Bible supposed to talk about God? So, what is the answer to that question?
So, a while back, I encountered a book called ‘How to read a book’ by this fellow over her, Mortimer Adler. Great thinker, great proponent of reading books that above you, that are more difficult than you feel that you can really understand. According to Mortimer, actually the Bible is one of those books and he writes a manual for how to read these kinds of books. Not just any books; he argues that there are only about a hundred books that are worth reading. But, of those 100 books that are worth reading, how do you read a book that’s above you? That you have to struggle to figure out? And it gives you essentially a guide about how to read these kinds of books.
Another thing that he says in here is that, when you try and read a book - any one of these books - one of the first thing that you need to do is that you need to figure out what the genre of the book is. That is, what kind of a book you are talking about. Let’s say that you are reading a Chemistry text book but you don’t realize that it is a chemistry textbook, and you think it is a poetry book. You are going to start asking the wrong questions about the book; it’s just not going to make any sense to you.
So, when we read the Bible, how would you look at the genre of the Bible? What kind of book is the Bible? This is not really an easy question to answer: what kind of a book is the Bible? We’re tempted, perhaps, to argue that, “Well, the Bible is a book about God.” It’s a theological book, right? That would be a book about God. There are other theological books, a lot of sort of Christian books, about medieval times: Dante’s ‘Inferno’, St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’. These are theological books that paint a picture of what it’s like to be ‘God’. What does it look like - living in God’s world, or Heaven? What does it look like in Hell? What are these experiences like? What do the realms beyond - the metaphysical realms - beyond the human world look beyond?
But if you look at the Hebrew Bible, and say, “Is the Bible a theological work?” I want to argue that the answer is, “No! The Bible is not a theological work.” But you say, “That’s ridiculous! The Bible is about God. How could it not be a theological work?” I say, “No, the Bible is not about God.” So, now you are sounding heretical, right? “The Bible is not about God? How can the Bible not be about God?”
Well, the Bible is sort of about God. The Bible is about humanity, it’s relationship with God. It’s a book for us; it’s not a book for God. It’s trying to describe how a book and humanity should interrelate with one another. What is God like in His own numinous solitude is not the subject of the Bible; it’s not what its about. That’s a ‘need to know’ kind of thing. You know, one day you will die - in the Bible’s perspective - then you will go up to Heaven, or wherever it is, and you will know what it is like. But now you’re in this world and this is not what it is about. It’s about establishing a relationship between humanity and God. And of course, you don’t always need to know what something is like in it’s own world, in order to establish relationship with it. Men and women have relationships all the time; but does a man really understand what it is like to be a woman? No, he’s guessing. He can’t really figure it out; he has to establish a relationship with her, anyway.
So, on a larger scale, we can’t all figure out what God is like; but we, as human beings, have built a relationship with God despite that. So, I would say that the Bible is not a book about God; its not a theological book, but it is a book about our relationship with God. It’s a chronicle of humanity’s relationship with God over a certain period of time.
If it’s true that the Bible generally doesn’t give us a picture of what it is like to be God, as God. That’s not the subject of the book - giving us an insight into what it is like to be God. There is, fascinatingly, an exception to that rule. There is one point in the Bible - one point in this book, the Torah - where the Bible actually gives you an insight into what’s it actually like to be God. That is to say, something where it’s not portraying to you the relationship that God has with humanity. It’s portraying something from our perspective. Its not portraying an interaction between God and humanity, its just portraying God in His own world and what its like to be in that world. That is the exception. Where do you think that is? Where in the Bible is that?
So, even if you are not much of a scholar, but now you know the answer to that. What is the answer to that?
The answer is the Shabbat; it’s right over here, in Genesis Chapter 2, in the words which we’ve been reading: On the 7th day, when God creates the Shabbat, we get a portrayal - a sort of intimate, a sort of emotional portrayal, really - of what it’s like to be God. Of God in His own world, in a sort of numinous solitude. Let’s read this words: ‘As God has finished creating the Heveans and the Earths’ - in the words of the Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 2: vayechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i - God finished on the 7th day, all the work that he had made; vayishbot bayom hashevi’i mikol-melachto asher asah - And god rested.
So far, just these words describing God’s action: God created, then God rested. And now, look at this: vayevarech Elokim et-yom hashevi’i - And God blessed the 7th day; vayekadesh oto - and He sanctified it, He blessed that day, He made it holy.” Why? He didn’t tell mankind about this; He didn’t tell them about it. This little secret that God has in His own world! He blessed the day because He made it a holiday for Himself. “‘’ - Because on it, He rested”. God was so happy that He decided to bless this day and to sanctify it. Not so that, in the future some time, he could make it a holiday for mankind, and that He is teaching us.
No! This is because God’s own experience - we’re getting this little insight into God’s own experiences. not about the future. Later on, in Exodus, God will command people to keep the Shabbat. That’s not what this is about. This is about right now. Right now, God - as God - is really happy with this day. He’s just excited; He’s blessing this day; He’s sanctifying it because He’s just so thrilled, because He is exhausted from all his work that He made. Strange!
God is really excited about this rest. What is so fascinating about this rest and why is it the one insight that we get in the entire Torah, seemingly of, so to speak, God’s emotional state - what it’s like to be God, in God’s own world? Very, very strange!
What it seems to suggest, by the way, is that as good as Creation was - and this is just absolutely astounding - Rest is even better! Rest is like the purpose of everything. And by the way, the Rabbis later on, in the language of prayers, actually - that is said on the Shabbat, the Friday night Shabbat prayers - actually do use that language. They talk about rest as the tachlit shamayim vaaretz’. Tachlit, in Hebrew, spelled over here, תכליתactually is Hebrew for ‘purpose’. The purpose - the very purpose - of shamayim vaaretz, the very purpose of Creation of Hevean and Earth, somehow, is rest. Sounds propestrous!
You can imagine somebody working over here, okay? So, you are working and working. The purpose of work is vacation? It’s the umbrellas and the chairs, and the beach? That’s the purpose of work? We get it - it’s nice to take a break; okay. They’re great; breaks are great! But this break - this 10 day break, when you get to go to Florida - this break is the purpose of the work? The purpose of the work, hopefully, is what you achieve during the work. How can the purpose of the work be taking a break from work? It doesn’t seem to make any sense - rest is the purpose of Creation!
But we are starting to get a very fascinating view of the Shabbat - a very counter intuitive view of the Shabbat, and it’s emerging from a number of questions that we have raised. Let’s summarize these questions: why would an all-powerful God need to rest? Seemingly, God wouldn’t need to rest at all; how tired was He?
Why do we celebrate Creation by resting? It seems like counter-intuitive; we should celebrate God’s Creation by creating, making paper mache worlds, globes. Why do we rest as a way of celebrating it?
But perhaps the answer: we are not actually celebrating Creation. What we are actually doing is celebrating Rest. But why would we do that? Again, we have this insight of God’s own world: God is celebrating rest! But how could rest be the purpose of Creation? Why is Rest this grand thing? How do we understand that?
I think the Hebrew word for Rest - when we are talking about Rest, ‘Shabbat’ is actually, probably, is a very different thing from what we mean in English when most of us talk about rest. What really does ‘Shabbat’ mean? What does it really mean to rest as God. from this kind of Creation? I think it really means something different.
I think we get a clue for this when we go back to the very first text in Genesis, Chapter 2, that actually introduces us to the first Shabbat. If we read it very carefully, I think that we have a clue to what exactly the nature of this rest is. It’s not what we would expect.
We’ll come back and talk about that next.
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