August 3, 2012: Rest as an Ethical Obligation (Va'etchanan)

We have discussed throughout the service the two great themes of Jewish theology, Creation and Revelation, which correspond to the twin conceptions of God as the Creator of the universe and as the Author of the Torah, which correspond to two distinct reasons for Shabbat noted in the Qiddush: zikaron le-ma’aseh breishit, “as a reminder of the work of Creation,” and zecher letzi’at Mitzrayim, “recalling the Exodus from Egypt.” Judaism views the world in two parallel dimensions: the physical and the moral. Furthermore, they reflect each other. The immutable laws of astronomy and physics stem from the same reality as the basic principles of ethics. My teacher Rabbi Arthur Green once compared light and love, the subjects of the first two prayers of the worship service, Maariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam. He said, just as the light from the sun is the ultimate energy source for all physical and biological processes on earth, so, too, love is the ultimate energy source for all human expressions of lovingkindness. They are simply two different manifestations of the same divine force: light in the physical realm, and love in the spiritual realm.

Because the two versions of the Ten Commandments, from the Book of Exodus and from this week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, are for the most part identical, the commentators have very little to say the second time around. However, Deuteronomy’s formulation of the Fourth Commandment is new: “You shall observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there”—to which Rashi hastens to add: “God redeemed you on the following condition, that you would be God’s servant and follow God’s commandments.” (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15) I’ve been pondering Rashi’s caveat all week long—through all the meetings, all the appointments, all the tasks, and all the responsibilities that characterize my new position here at Beth Shalom. First of all, his admonition is ironic. It’s ironic that we were freed from slavery only to become God’s servant. That’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But secondly, why does Rashi attach his comment to the Fourth Commandment, the commandment to keep Shabbat, of all places? Why not somewhere else where the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned? Why not to the First Commandment, for example, which reads: “I am Adonai Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the House of Bondage.” That would seem a more fitting place for Rashi to comment that we were given freedom on condition that we become God’s servant.

During this phase of my life, I very much feel that I am meant to be an eved ha-Shem, a servant of God. I am pouring myself into my work here at Beth Shalom, stacking appointments one right after the other (forgetting to schedule time to prepare for them and to follow up from them), shifting gears multiple times daily as I go from one work environment to another, and handling three times more e-mail daily than ever before! I am consumed by my work, and loving it! I love the feeling of accomplishment—a sermon well written, a program well executed, an academic degree well earned. I think that’s why I love long-distancing backpacking so much: being able to turn around at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail on the Canadian border, and looking back at Mexico, and saying: I walked all that way. However, somewhere along the way this week, the realization dawned on me: I’m never going to complete all the work here. I’m never going to get to the end of it. No sooner do I write one sermon and there’s another, for next week. No sooner do I prepare one life cycle event and there’s another, thank God! The image that comes to mind is of a constantly flowing brook, a brook that never stops.

Why did Rashi place his injunction to become God’s servant and to follow God’s commandments where he does, embedded within the Fourth Commandment? Rashi is reminding us that we are not God’s servants unless we also follow God’s commandment to rest. The truth is, we are all flowing brooks. The work of our lives is never complete. There is always more. At our meeting this week, I reminded the Religious Observance Committee: we don’t have to plan the perfect High Holiday services this year, because no matter how much effort we put in, we can count on glitches and dissatisfactions. Whatever we don’t get right this year, we’ll improve for next year. We never have the luxury to reach the end of the trail, and say: we have arrived. That’s why we need to rest regularly and celebrate our accomplishments.

Shabbat is not only the crown of Creation. It is the crown of Revelation. The importance of rest is not only a physical principle, but an ethical one. If we engage the incessant flow of work without a break, we not only violate the regular circadian cycle of activity and dormancy that characterizes all living processes, we deny our ability to care for ourselves and for others. There’s an old New Yorker cartoon of commuters in a crowded subway car. In the middle of the frame, a black-hat Rabbi is just winding up a conversation into his cellphone: “And, remember!” he says. “If you need anything, I’m available 24/6!” Ironically, we are more, not less, available to each other, if we are available 24/6, not 24/7. Take time out just to be. You’ll get more done that way. But more importantly, you’ll be happier, you’ll be more loving, and you’ll be at peace.