In the Midrash in this week's Sedra, Moshe tells Pharaoh that the Jews will not work on Shabbos.
What is the mystery of Shabbos so important, that Pharaoh is forced to cope with the fact that Jews will not work on Shabbos? For most uninitiated Jews, Shabbos seems an enormous chore. A day without shopping, traveling or entertainment; a day without movies, television, and even the stereo for background music. Who wants to live like this? Who would voluntarily undertake this imprisonment? Intelligent Jews shake their heads in dismay. The caring ones extend their hearts to pity the misguided fanatics involved in this primitive rite, for whom reason appears not to exist.
In truth it is difficult to communicate the preciousness of Shabbos for those who keep it, because to a large extent its joy must be experienced. The apparent restrictions are in fact gates to new, greater and dazzling freedoms. These freedoms, however, become available only after the experience of Shabbos is lived, and lived repeatedly. Those not prepared to invest the time and energy, sadly never discover the wonder of the phenomenon.
We have a saying, that more than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbos throughout our history, the Shabbos has kept the Jewish people. This saying has many levels. The simple level is the obvious one, that both sociologically as well as religiously, Shabbos has been a binding and bonding process for our nation.
At a deeper level, the celestial properties of Shabbos are a necessary ingredient for the spiritual thriving and prospering of a Jew. Indeed, whoever keeps Shabbos and takes a delight in it, inherits blessings which we will learn are unlimited.
Shabbos is mentioned in the Ten Commandments which themselves are actually stated twice; once in the book of Shemos, in the Sedra Yisro and again in the book of Devorim in the Sedra Vaes'chanan. In the first recitation of the Ten Commandments we are commanded to remember the Shabbos, keeping it separate. In the second, the injunction is to guard the Shabbos, keeping it separate. We have a tradition, that both of those instructions of guarding and remembering were heard by Am Yisrael at one and the same time. "Remember" is a curious command, because it implies that Shabbos existed before the time the command was given. We are not commanded to remember something which has never happened before; we cannot, for example, be commanded to remember Moshiach. Never having experienced Moshiach, how could we be commanded to remember him?
We know that the Avos kept the whole Torah before it had been given. Clearly therefore, the Avos did in fact keep Shabbos, but apparently at a different level. Curiously however, the Torah clearly states that when Yaacov came close to a certain city, he fixed the borders for Shabbos. On Shabbos one is not allowed to journey past a boundary of two thousand amos outside the borders of a city, (about 7/10 of a mile). It is this border Yaacov established in this city; yet the Torah with the command of Shabbos contained in it, had not yet been given.
The Rebbe explains that the blessings of Am Yisrael come to us because of Shabbos. Indeed, whoever keeps Shabbos properly, obtains these blessing which are unlimited. Fascinatingly, these unlimited blessings come to those who actually fix their boundaries on Shabbos - not of course physical boundaries, but those which a Jew takes on for spiritual reasons. Am Yisrael and Shabbos therefore are absolutely and completely interdependent one with the other; without Shabbos there can be no Am Yisrael, because without Shabbos we cannot access the unlimited blessings which flow down to and through Yaacov to World Jewry.
Now, these unlimited blessings a Jew merits, comes through his actually keeping Shabbos, through his participation in observing and guarding Shabbos. How do we observe and guard Shabbos? By "Shabbosing" (badly translated as "resting"). "Shabbosing" means refraining from thirty-nine forms of labor. However, people are very confused about this concept of "labor" and "rest". Effort, for example, is an inconsequential consideration.
One could, if so minded, move heavy furniture where necessary around the house on Shabbos, without transgressing any of the laws of Shabbos. Equally however, by lighting one match with little or no effort, Shabbos is violated.
So what is the common denominator, if not effort? What is it a Jew does on Shabbos and accepts that he is forbidden to do?
Shabbos is best understood in terms of withdrawal from the creative and destructive physical activities into spiritual ones. On Shabbos, a Jew withdraws from the physical into the spiritual, surrendering his dominion over the creative and destructive processes of the world. Physical effort is less relevant.
This process of withdrawal imitates HaShem's withdrawal from the creative process on the seventh day of creation. On every seventh day a Jew imitates G-d's withdrawal from the creative and dismantling processes, to journey into touch with HaShem. In doing so he renews his personal vigor and recharges his spiritual potential.
The second Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe, pointed out that the mitzvah of Shabbos is different to every other mitzvah in Torah. Other mitzvos involve a positive action or refraining from an action. Qualitatively fulfillment of the mitzvah varies with the level of the Jew. tzaddikim clearly will perform a given mitzvah better than an ordinary person. For example, consider the mitzvah of tefillin. Every male adult Jew must put on tefillin, on everyday which is not Shabbos or Yom Tov. There are two aspects of tefillin; there is the physical task of putting the boxes containing parchment and the straps on one's arm and head, and then there are the levels of one's mental involvement when performing these actions. Does the subject understand, for example, that he is dedicating the strength of his arm and the intellect in his head to the service of HaShem for the whole of his day? If so, to what extent? And with what concentration? When a tzaddik puts on tefillin, his involvement is complete to a level unachievable by an ordinary person. Of course the ordinary person's action is infinitely valuable. The mitzvah, after all, is one of action. With all the fine intentions in the universe, without the action, there is no achievement of the mitzvah of tefillin. Conversely, a man with his mind on football who puts on tefillin is in possession of the mitzvah. Once having attained the mitzvah however, there then begin levels of achievement, distinguished by mental and spiritual involvement.
The Mitteler Rebbe explains that this is not true of Shabbos. Shabbos, the refraining from creative and dismantling processes, is a positive mitzvah. Yet, even so, in keeping it we are refraining from physicality at one level or another. Our action is negative in the sense that we are refraining from something. The mitzvah is a positive one but our involvement is negative, insofar as we are not doing a positive act. Therefore there can be no difference in this refraining between one Jew and another. There cannot be levels of refraining. Both tzaddik and transgressor keep Shabbos the same way by not lighting a match. The tzaddik has no superior intentions or mental involvement in not lighting a match than anyone else. Every Jew who keeps Shabbos properly, keeps Shabbos equally. This is an extraordinary observation. This mitzvah is unique in that Tzaddik and thief, providing they adhere to all its requirements, have the mitzvah of Shabbos exactly equally!
So HaShem's blessings to us come through Shabbos in two of its aspects; first, it is universal to all of Am Yisrael; second, by keeping Shabbos properly all Jews have the mitzvah equally.
We learned previously that all Jews have a neshamah. This neshamah has five levels, three of which are enclothed in the body and two which are not.
The next few paragraphs are a little difficult, but necessary to understand the secrets of Shabbos. The highest of the levels of the neshamah not enclothed in the body is called "Yechidah" - that part of the neshamah bound-up together with HaShem.
On Shabbos, the keeping of Shabbos reaches that level of every Jew's neshamah which is Yechidah, higher than any revelation of his neshamah in his body.
The three lower levels of the neshamah are revealed in the body. The neshamah has various powers which are revealed through organs of the body. For example the neshamah has a power to see, and the power to see is revealed in the body. It is revealed in the body even without of the organ which is instrumental in doing the seeing. If a man's eye is impaired he cannot see but, he still has the power to see. The proof? Mend the instrument and the sight is restored. Similarly with hearing. Again, there is the power to hear and there is the instrument which hears. If the instrument is faulty, hearing is impaired. Nevertheless while the ear is faulty the power to hear remains. Separate the neshamah from the body, by death, remove the power to hear, the best ears in the world will hear nothing.
Now the neshamah also has powers which are not enclothed or revealed in the body. The level of the Yechidah as we have just learned is not revealed in the body whatsoever.
This is the level of the neshamah which responds when a Jew keeps Shabbos. Since this level of neshamah is independent of the physical body, the revelation is equal in all Jews. As every Jew's Yechidah is part of HaShem Himself, there can be no concept of superiority or inferiority or a qualitative difference in a Jew's Yechidah; it is specifically this level which is revealed on Shabbos. This is so in the sense that a Jew's neshamah, bound up and part of HaShem, is exposed and highlighted by the keeping of Shabbos. Not surprisingly, one can actually feel this. Take a Jew experienced in observing Shabbos, who has steadily increased his level of involvement, and he will feel this glow steadily increase. Baalei Teshuvah often report this phenomenon. They actually feel the connection with HaShem in a tangible way as the unlimited blessing from Shabbos flow forth.
This is what Yaacov was doing establishing the boundaries for Shabbos as an inheritance for Am Yisrael forever. This inheritance is so specific that even Pharaoh was bound by it in this week's Sedra. These are the gates to freedom, mistakenly perceived by the uninitiated as limitations on freedom. The joys of Shabbos come not only from the obvious tangible aspects of walking to Synagogue, a child clutching each hand talking, (actually talking,) to their daddy/mammy; of eating and drinking a little in the company of good people at the kiddush; of the extravagantly long lunches, followed by sweet afternoon sleep. All these things are positives and a revered fixture in the week. But Shabbos is more than all this as we have seen. A Jew by keeping Shabbos, is in touch with the level of his neshamah which is the Yechidah, and by doing so he is directly in touch in a feeling sense with HaShem. This makes a vessel for absolutely unlimited blessings to be poured down into him, his wife and his children.
This week affords every Jew the opportunity to fix his spiritual boundaries. He is then able to access that which emanates from the Shabbos zone as the world sails into this weekly island in time. From here every Jew's blessings are unlimited.
- (Back to text) Tanchuma, Va'eira sec. 6; see also Shemos Rabbah 1:28, 5:18.
- (Back to text) Yisro 20:8, Vaes'chanan 5:12.
- (Back to text) Yoma 28b as explained in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 41.
- (Back to text) Bereishis Rabbah 79:7.
- (Back to text) Beshallach 16:29, see Rashi there. Eruvin 51a.
- (Back to text) See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 226ff.; Vol. XXX, p. 125ff.
- (Back to text) Maamarei Admur HaEmtzaei. Kuntreisim, p. 10ff.
- (Back to text) For a thorough explanation of what follows see Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 226ff.
- (Back to text) The Ladder Up, Building Block No. 6.
- (Back to text) Likkutei Torah, Re'eh p. 21b.