A Radical Shabbat
Parashat Ki Tissa
In Parashat Ki Tissa, we transition abruptly from many chapters describing the mishkan, in all of its perfect detail, to our first major sin as a people: creating the golden calf. Between these two very different poles—the ideal and the real—the Torah interjects with a brief discussion of Shabbat. This textual order is not merely coincidental.1 In Hassidic interpretation, we live this out in our own lives, as Shabbat each week brings us back to our “pre-sin” state. Shabbat reminds us that, at our core, we have the capacity to live inside our vision for what should be, even as that vision may usually feel unattainable in the midst of the incremental work of our day-to-day lives.
After finishing the instructions for how to build the mishkan, the Torah re-introduces the importance of Shabbat:
וְאַתָּ֞ה דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ כִּי֩ א֨וֹת הִ֜וא בֵּינִ֤י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם לָדַ֕עַת כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י
Speak to the people of Israel and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I, YHVH, have consecrated you.
Rashi explains that the word “nevertheless” comes to “exclude Shabbat from the work of the mishkan.”2 It is not totally clear what he means.3 In 1871, the Hassidic teacher, the Sefat Emet, shares the little bit he remembers from his grandfather’s interpretation of this cryptic phrase:
שפת אמת פרשת כי תשא תרל"א
…ואא"ז מו"ר זצלה"ה אמר הפירוש שאף שגם המשכן הוא ענין השראת השכינה וגם ענין שבת הוא
עליות כל הנבראים. וממעט הכתוב שאין ענין המשכן בשבת. ודבריו צריכין ביאור כי איני זוכר יותר…
Sefat Emet Ki Tissa 1871
…My teacher said the explanation is that, just like the mishkan is the matter of God’s Indwelling Presence and also the matter of Shabbat is the elevation of all creatures, so the Torah makes an exclusionary ruling, that the matter of the mishkan does not apply on Shabbat. His words need explanation, for I don’t remember any more.
The spiritual role of the mishkan and Shabbat seem to serve a similar function, but in opposite directions. The mishkan represents God “coming down” to our earthly dimension; Shabbat represents all creatures “going up” to God. One might think these are complementary and work in tandem, but the point here is that, for some reason, they cannot sit side by side.
As Sefat Emet revisits this puzzling concept year after year he explains why the work of the mishkan is irrelevant to Shabbat. First, we have to understand that at Sinai, we had attained a status like angels, with no barrier between ourselves and God, no gap between our “real” and “ideal” selves.4 The golden calf corrupted this status, and the point of the labors of the mishkan was to bring us back to our pre-sin state:
שפת אמת פרשת כי תשא תרלח
…ונתקן במלאכת המשכן שהוא ענין בירור ל"ט מלאכות שכולל כל מעשה האדם… וע"י היגיעה לעשות
הכל בקדושה זוכין למצוא הארת השכינה בכל מקום כו'.
Sefat Emet Ki Tissa 1878
… this was repaired through the work of the mishkan, which involves clarifying the 39 labors, which include all of human action… Through the toil of doing everything with kedushah (holiness), we merit to find the glow of the Divine Presence in every place.
We see here that building the mishkan was not a one-time opportunity for Israel to make amends for their sin, but rather represents the work of all of human labor during the week.5 In this frame, the goal of our mundane work is like the goal of the mishkan, to distill God’s presence hidden within the world around us, in all of the mess of materiality and limitations of human existence.
But the nature of Shabbat is different:
אמנם יום השבת לא חטאו בנ"י… ששמירת השבת נשאר נקי בלי הצטרכות שום בירור.
However, on Shabbat Benei Yisrael didn’t sin… keeping Shabbat remains pure, without the need for any clarification.
The weekday work of laboring to distill some semblance of Divine Presence within the world around us suddenly disappears on Shabbat. Shabbat brings us back to our pre-sin state (to Exodus 31, so to speak) when we didn’t need the work of the mishkan to seek out God’s presence, because God’s presence was so clearly around us—and even in us.
Shabbat represents a total paradigm shift, not just taking a break from our usual work:
וברש"י שבת שבתון מנוחת מרגוע ולא עראי. פי' שלא יהי' השביתה עיכוב המלאכה לפי שעה רק לשכוח
מכל ענין המלאכה…
And in Rashi: “‘Shabbat Shabbaton’ (Exodus 31:15)—A restful rest, not temporary.” This means that the rest should not be holding back from doing work for the time being but forgetting the whole concept of work.
On Shabbat, the to-do list evaporates as we tap into the core reality of who we are. There is no gap between us and God, between the people we are and the people we want to become. We bear witness to the fundamental power and possibility of the inner capacity of ourselves and the world around us.
Now we understand the force of the original idea, that Shabbat must be “excluded” from the work of the mishkan. The work of the mishkan is not just a different means to achieve a similar end; it is actually antithetical to Shabbat, an affront to the spiritual reality Sefat Emet describes. Through the gift (perhaps even “grace”) of Shabbat each week, we are already close to God, and contain within us the person we want to be. Seeking out someone right in front of you reflects that you are not seeing them, or adamantly denying their existence. Pursuing “the work of the mishkan” on Shabbat would undermine the already present force of our relationship with God, and the truth of our inner being.
The Sefat Emet suggests that, in our spiritual lives we regularly toggle between the modes of incremental growth during the week, and an asymptotic discontinuity towards the infinite on Shabbat. We must have a dynamic spiritual practice. Yes, most of our time we are in the mode of incremental progress towards an unreachable goal. But we have to interrupt that mindset and realize that, if we are true to who we are, we can already recognize the person we want to become and taste the world we are trying to build. The radically disruptive leap of Shabbat renews our vision each week in two ways. Shabbat can reaffirm what we already think we are ultimately striving for, but it can also unsettle our regular spiritual trek, allowing us to adapt our vision of what we need to work towards.
The dynamic modes of building towards closeness that Sefat Emet describes in our relationship with God can hold true on the interpersonal plane as well. In general, we may find ourselves trying to incrementally grow closer to others, especially after a time of conflict or misunderstanding (like the golden calf). Yet, Shabbat reminds us that we might do well to sometimes become aware of the raw desire to be always/already close in a way that the incremental work may obscure.
For most of the week, and most of our lives, we devote ourselves to the hard work of slowly getting closer to what we most hope for and long for, in terms of who we can become, the relationships we have, and what our world can be. We are always aware of the work that remains to be done. It can often feel like an infinite gap between where we are and where we want to be. We take a break from this work on Shabbat, not just because we are tired and need time off, but to bring a sense of our true selves into clear focus, and to know that what feels like the unattainable vision towards which we strive can actually be real.
1 The chiasm is A-B-C-B’-A’, as follows: A) Exodus 30 caps off Parashiyyot Terumah and Tetzaveh with a series of seven statements—the first six about the mishkan (30:11-31:11), B) the seventh about Shabbat (31:12-17). C) Verse 18 starts to pick up back at Sinai and leads into the golden calf, which continues into the end of chapter 34. B’) Parashat VaYakhel begins with Shabbat at 35:1-3, then A’) continues with the building of the mishkan until the end of Sefer Shemot.
3 Indeed, Ramban points out flaws in the logic Rashi uses here, compared to other examples of abbinic interpretation of similar kinds of words: “אך את שבתותי תשמורו... ולא נתכון אצלי, כי לפי מדרש רבותינו באכין ורקין ימעט בשמירת השבת, כי המיעוטים אצלם בכל מקום ימעטו בדבר המצווה בו, ואם תדרוש המיעוט בענין מלאכת המשכן יהיה מותר לעשותה בשבת! / …This is not right to me. For, according to our sages’ method of interpretation regarding the words “but” (akh) and “only” (rak), it should make an exception regarding observance of Shabbat, for the exclusionary words always make an exclusion regarding the thing that is commanded. If you were to interpret the exclusion regarding the work of the mishkan, it would be permitted to do it on Shabbat!”
4 Sefat Emet refers to this throughout his comments. One particularly cogent description is in his comments on Yitro, 1892: “בענין מעמד הר סיני דכ' יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלהיך בחורב. כי בהר סיני באו בנ"י לתכלית השלימות. והיו כמלאכים. דהאדם נק' מהלך. ע"י שבכל עת צריך לילך ממדרגה למדרגה לבוא אל השלימות. ואז נק' עומד. ומעין זה השלימות יש הארה בכל שבת לכן יש בו שביתה. וכ' אם תשיב משבת רגלך כו'. אל יצא איש ממקומו... / Regarding the matter of “standing” at Har Sinai, as it is written “The day that you stood before your God at Horeb” (Deuteronomy 4:10). For at Sinai, all of Benei Yisrael came to the completion of wholeness and were like angels. A person is called “one who walks” because at all times a person must go from one step to the next to come to completeness. Then one is called “one who stands.” And there is a glimmer of an element of this completeness every Shabbat- that is why it contains rest/ceasing. And it is written “If you will take back your foot from Shabbat…”(Isaiah 58:13) and “No man shall leave his place [on Shabbat]” (Exodus 16:29).”
5 Indeed, the 39 forbidden labors of Shabbat (listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2) do indeed seem to touch on all aspects of human labor (cultivating food, preparing clothing, building a home, carrying goods, etc).