Ki Tisa – A Sabbath for Generations
The way we use our free time says a lot about us.
When we are at work, or in any other framework during which our time is structured, we follow the routine and get done those tasks which we are assigned or which we choose to prioritise. Outside of such a framework, however, when nothing is urgently due and we are under no particular time constraints, our choices of activities reflect, to a degree, our values and sense of self.
After describing some final details of the Mishkan’s instructions, including the anointing oil and the incense as well as the appointment of Betzalel who would oversee the entire project, the Torah comes back to the Mitzvah of Shabbat, which had been briefly addressed earlier in the context of the 10 Commandments. One of the prominent aspects of Shabbat is its proscription of many activities that we typically engage in throughout the week. We may not perform any melacha, any creative activity (which was utilized in the construction and function of the Tabernacle as defined by our tradition).
The passage concludes with the verses recited in the Kiddush of Shabbat morning. “The children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations…” (Exodus 31:16)
It is not far-fetched to speculate that one of the purposes of the Sabbath was to create a space in time which is not governed by the routine of the daily grind, a day set apart particularly by a restriction on such activities which commonly take up our time of the day. In other words, a goal of the Sabbath is idleness from such routine. In his commentary Hadrash V’ha’iyun, Rabbi Aaron Levine points out that desisting from such routine is not always positive. Such rest is only good when it’s time is filled with something productive. Idleness on its own can be very harmful and destructive, as emphasized by our sages in Pirkei Avot.
The opening words of the verse cited above insinuate this idea as well. It is very easy to see the Sabbath purely for its restrictive elements without appreciating what it is designed for. The Torah states that the Children of Israel shall “observe” the Sabbath, connoting a positive and productive function. Ibn Ezra, a 12th century commentator, writes that this is a comprehensive obligation to think about the Sabbath during the week so that all the needs of the Sabbath will be met through prior anticipation. The Sabbath is not merely observed by idleness from the restricted activities. Such a practice would be counterproductive (although not strictly a violation of the law). Shabbat is more about doing than about cessation from doing. It is a time devoted to activities that are outside our usual routine, functioning as a litmus to our use of unstructured time.
The Chizkuni, a 13th century commentator, takes a similar approach to that of Ibn Ezra, but he stresses the mental anticipation of the Sabbath as the fulfillment of this “observance.” When the Sabbath is on our minds during the week, when we constantly look forward to the Sabbath, it has greater potential to become a productive day, achieving the type of observance desired by the Torah.
The Talmud records that the two great sages Shammai and Hillel constantly thought about the Sabbath. When Shammai would encounter a delicacy, a food more special than what was served daily, he would set it aside for Shabbat. Hillel expressed the same anticipation of the coming Sabbath, although his was practice was the opposite of Shammai. When he encountered a delicacy he would bless God and enjoy it, expressing confidence that God would provide something even better for the Sabbath.
The latter half of the verse states “to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations.” If one wishes for the value of the Sabbath to be successfully transmitted to subsequent generations there must exist this type of positive “observance.” Our attitude toward Shabbat is reflected to those younger than us whether we intend for that or not. Shammai and Hillel both established academies which existed for generations after their passing, known respectively as the “house of Shammai” and the “house of Hillel.” No doubt their constant “observance” of not only the Sabbath but of all Torah values had a great deal to do with that success.
We have a cupboard filled with breakfast cereals near the dining room table. Most of the cereals are typical, reasonably healthy breakfasts. A couple of cartons, however, do not fit into that category. They are sugary cereals, of the kind nutritionists warn us about and food journalists rant how these breakfast choices drive up the sugar intake of children high above recommended levels. These cereals are reserved for Saturday’s breakfast. Every morning, usually in the six o’clock hour, Nadav is ready for breakfast and he goes to the cupboard to choose his morning diet. Invariably after scanning the options he turns to me and asks hopefully, “Is today Shabbat?” Numerous times we have thought that it would be wise to store the sugary cereals elsewhere so that the kids aren’t teased every morning at breakfast time. But it is possible that the anticipation generated by that cereal every day, causing the kids to look forward to Shabbat, is of higher value.