Parshat Vayakhel: Shabbat Here and Now

Six days shall you do your work and the seventh day shall be holy unto you, a Sabbath of resting to God. (Shmot 35:2)

Sleeping and Waking Up

If the goal of the spiritual journey is to awaken the self, then it would seem that, spiritually speaking, many people go through life “asleep.” We live without intention or awareness, often as a result of our mind’s tendency to wander backward and forward in time, dwelling on the past or planning for the future. Only when focused on being present does a person “wake up.”

Once upon a time a Zen student asked his teacher how he could achieve Nirvana. His teacher responded: “Through eating and sleeping.” The student was confused, for doesn’t everyone eat and sleep? But the teacher explained, “when I eat, I eat. And when I sleep, I sleep.” Nirvana, the connection to the depths of life, is a result of our ability to be absolutely present in our actions. Through this one connects with all of existence, and this  is the spiritual awakening for which we long.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslav also describes awareness and the lack thereof through the metaphor of sleep: “For sleep is the departure of awareness” (Likutei MoHaRan, 117), “For there are people who sleep through their days…for the essence of life is intellect… and it is necessary to wake it from its sleep” (Ibid, 60). Elsewhere, he instructs his students to focus on the present: “Man has nothing in this world except for the very day and hour in which he stands, for the world tomorrow is a different place altogether” (Ibid, 272). Waking up is the ultimate spiritual mission – we must be present in life, in the now, and relate to existence with meaning lest it pass us by unnoticed.

Reb Nachman’s Shabbat

And Moshe said, ‘eat of it today, for Shabbat is a day to God’ (Shmot 16:25). For each of the three meals of Shabbat, the word “today” is written, to indicate that one should eat only for that day. Because sometimes one eats because of yesterday’s hunger, and sometimes one eats to stave off tomorrow’s, but for each of the three meals of Shabbat one should eat only for “today,” that this meal should neither be for the past nor the future. (Likutei MoHaRan 125)

Each of the meals of Shabbat, according to Reb Nachman, is intended for their own sake alone, and we must be focus on being present while partaking of them. Sleeping on Shabbat also fulfills the spiritual function of being present in the moment. It would seem that on Shabbat a person achieves exactly the Nirvana that the Zen master described, a place in which all of one’s actions are focused on the present. But if we continue in the words of Reb Nachman, we see that in fact it’s much more than that.

According to Reb Nachman’s approach, eating on Shabbat connects us to the inner level of reality and to a deep holiness: “On Shabbat one must simply indulge in food and drink, for eating on Shabbat is entirely Godly, entirely holy” (Ibid). Dwelling in the present, according to Reb Nachman, not only wakes us up but even allows us to experience closeness with God.

A Day in Which All is Shabbat

The special addition to the Birkat HaMazon made on Shabbat, that “the Merciful One will grant us a day in which all is Shabbat and resting for all time,” also teaches us that Shabbat is a day of being present. What is that “day in which all is Shabbat?” Could it be referring to a future reality in which every day of the week is literally Shabbat? If so, it is a quantitative request – we seek to have the experience of Shabbat expanded to be more than one day a week. But this doesn’t seem to be the intention, for the truth is, I know that the essence of Shabbat is hidden from me, and my heart’s desire is to find the way to arrive at it and to experience it truly.

Woman Lighting Shabbat CandlesFirst and foremost, the “day in which all is Shabbat” refers only to the day of Shabbat itself, and no other day of the week. According to the Baal Shem Tov, a person is to be found wherever his thoughts are to be found. When a person spends all Shabbat thinking about what happened to him yesterday or what he will do tomorrow, he is not really in Shabbat, he has not merited a day “in which all is Shabbat.” Only someone who successfully disconnects himself from the past and the future and focuses on the now, manages to be present on Shabbat – only then is he living the day.

The gemara relates, “a coarse step takes one five-hundredth of the light from a person’s eyes. What is the cure? To beautify the Kiddush on Friday night” (Berachot 43b). I heard an explanation in the name of Rabbi Alan Schwartz, that a “coarse step” refers to the rat race of life. It is the speed of our daily lives which takes “the light from a person’s eyes” and prevents us from seeing that which is of value. Shabbat, which halts the daily marathon, is the cure that returns to us our vision.

Halacha also indicates that this is the nature of Shabbat. It is forbidden to plan or prepare for anything during the week on Shabbat, forbidden to discuss matters pertaining to week on Shabbat, and it is preferable to refrain even from thinking about matters of the week on Shabbat.

Life is Holiness

According to Rav Kook, the “awakening” of being present in your every action is central to understanding of the essence of life.

The attribute of holiness is beyond all measure, and there is no need to say “I eat in order to have strength to learn, to pray, to do mitzvot” and the like, for this is only an intermediate level. Rather, the act of eating in and of itself is full of holiness and light, and the same is true of speaking and of every motion and feeling of life. (Shemonah Kevatzim, 2:65)

According to Rav Kook, as long as eating is only a means to an end, no matter how exalted that end might be, it is still only considered to be an “intermediate level.” A person only attains true holiness when she appreciates eating for its inherent spiritual value, and not only for the practical result it provides. Therefore a person must focus her entire consciousness on the action in which she is engaged at that exact moment.

In other places, Rav Kook describes the ecstasy of being wrapped up in divine holiness through eating (see Shemonah Kevatzim, 3:58). Like the Zen master from the story, Rav Kook gives meaning to focusing on the act of eating alone, and like Reb Nachman, he holds that such focus can bring you in touch with holiness.

Rav Kook refers the attitude which sees a given action as merely a means to an end as the “the sin of earth.”

At the beginning of creation, the taste of the tree was meant to be the same as the taste of the fruit. Every means toward any high spiritual objective was meant to feel as pleasurable and exalted to the soul as the arrival at the goal itself. But the land fell… and therefore only the taste of the fruit itself, the final product, the main ideal, can be experienced in it’s glory and pleasantness…

But there will come a day when the creation will return to its original state, and the taste of the tree will be like the taste of the fruit… (Orot HaTeshuva, 6:7)

Between the beginning of creation and the its final perfection and fixing we have Shabbat, “a taste of the World to Come,” where we return to Gan Eden, to the world in which the taste of the tree is like the taste of the fruit. On Shabbat, everything we do has an inherent meaning: Eating, sleeping, living. To connect to Shabbat is to connect to life and to connect to God.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.)
 

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