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Jewish World Review
Jan. 27, 2006
/ 27 Teves, 5766
Why would the All-Powerful need to rest?
Rabbi David Fohrman
The second in a series of five articles
Last week, we talked about what seems like a quirk in the way Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath: Switching on a light on the Sabbath is for some reason considered "work", and is off-limits during this Day of Rest. But dragging a heavy table from one end of a room to another somehow escapes classification as work, and is a permitted activity. This sounds bizarre and nonsensical. Is there any rhyme or reason to be found here?
If you'll permit me, I'd like to make matters worse a bit before I try and make them any better. I'd like to explore with you some other conundrums we face when we try and define the Jewish concept of the Sabbath. By exploring a few of these, and looking carefully at the Biblical text, we will broaden our inquiry, and our chances of seeing the internal logic of the Sabbath will, I think, start to increase.
TWO THEOLOGICAL QUESTION MARKS
O.K. Let's try the following theological zinger on for size:
"Why, exactly, would G-d feel it necessary to rest after creating the universe? Was He tired?"
The question isn't as facetious as it sounds. Judaism, like many other major religions, conceives of the Almighty an All-Powerful being. That, indeed, is why they call Him "the Almighty". So if G-d is really All-Powerful, how difficult would it have been for him to create a Universe? Presumably, this didn't require a lot of exertion on His behalf. Well, then, why did He need to rest afterwards?
Well, that's one conundrum. And now, here's another:
Most of us seem to assume that Sabbath observance is tied to our acknowledgement that G-d created the world; that is, "we rest, because the Creator rested". But there is something odd about this when you get right down to thinking about it. Why do we commemorate G-d's Creation of the Universe through a day of "rest"? Why not instead set aside a day of "work"?
In case this question doesn't strike you as all that troubling, let's bring it out of the realm of abstract theology for a minute, and couch the problem in more mundane terms.
Imagine that the government decided to institute a special "Rosa Parks Day" on the calendar. Its intent: To commemorate the civil rights triumph of the black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. And imagine that officials were looking for some sort of symbolic activity they could promote on this day to honor the memory of Rosa Parks' great act. Eventually, they came up with the following: Everyone should go home on Rosa Parks Day, and take a nap in bed. Why? Because, you see, after Rosa Parks took her historic ride on the bus, she was tired, and she went home to rest in bed. So let's all commemorate Rosa Parks Day by resting in bed, just as she did.
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I don't think many people would consider this a spectacular idea. If you really wanted to commemorate Rosa Parks, then we should re-enact her historic trip. People could spend part of the day riding on buses, or finding ways to fight racial prejudice in their home towns, just like Rosa did. But taking a nap? Somehow, that just doesn't seem to add up.
Yet on the Sabbath, isn't that really what the Torah is asking of us? We commemorate the Almighty's historic act of creating the world and we do so by resting. We do this, we say, because the Almighty rested when He finished making the universe. But shouldn't we instead remember creation by "creating", rather than "resting"? The point isn't that G-d rested it's that He made the world, right? Isn't "rest" just incidental?
BACK TO THE TEXT
Well, let's look at the verses and check it out. In Genesis chapter 2, the Torah chronicles the coming into being of the very first Sabbath. Listen carefully to these verses and ask yourself: Exactly what is the Sabbath designed to commemorate?
G-d finished on the seventh day the work that he had made, and He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had made. And G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work that G-d had created to make (Gen. 2:1-3).
These verses tell us the reason the Almighty deemed the Seventh Day special: Because on this day He rested ... Now, think about what those words are actually saying. As strange as it may seem, the verse is telling us that the point of the Sabbath Day is not, actually, to celebrate G-d=s creation of the universe. It is to celebrate His rest.
One second. That sounds downright silly. How could anyone think that G-d's Rest is more important than His work than the very act of creating the world? It sounds roughly like saying that the purpose of work is vacation. Vacation might be nice; it helps you gear up and refresh yourself to accomplish more things when you get back to work. But is vacation really what it's all about?
Evidently, the verses are telling us we need to re-assess our ideas about work and rest. G-d's rest, apparently, had very little in common with the idea of "vacation." It was not something that merely "happened" after G-d created the world; it was not that G-d took some time off for a breather. The Creator's rest was a deliberate act. It was a kind of rest that was, somehow, an end in and of itself:
You made the Seventh Day Holy for Your Name, it being the very purpose of the Making of Heaven and Earth ...
These words come from the backbone of the Friday night prayers Jews recite every week, from the Friday night Shemoneh Esrei. Listen to what they are saying. Sabbath, "rest", is portrayed as the very purpose of creation, the end for which the entire heavens and earth were created.
What does it mean to see rest in this way not as something you do to help you work, but something which is the very point of all your labor? Why would G-d consider His "rest" more worthy of commemoration than His successful creation of a universe?
Tied up in the secret of rest's deeper meaning is the mystery of Sabbath itself. It is a mystery we will explore further next week.
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JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
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Joe on the Plane and the Meaning of Sabbath
© 2006, Rabbi David Fohrman