Sunday, March 8, 2015

Parsha Ki Tisa: Shabbat as an Antidote to Idolatry

The following are thoughts that I had this past Shabbat on the past week's Torah portion of Ki Tisa.

I am sure that many rabbis this past Shabbat gave a d'var Torah on the Golden Calf incident. Considering that it's the highlight of the parshah, it makes sense. However, before the Golden Calf incident, G-d gives Moses instructions on constructing the Tabernacle. The beginning of the parshah (Exodus 30:16-31:17) is actually devoted to that theme. What is interesting is the conclusion of these instructions is the importance of the observance of Shabbat. You can see the Hebrew here [or here], but an English rendition would be as follows:

"And the L-rd said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say, 'Keep my Sabbaths because it is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I, G-d, have consecrated you. You shall keep the Sabbath because it is holy for you. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath shall be put to death; whoever does work on it shall be cut off from his kinfolk. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a day of complete rest, holy to G-d; whoever does work on the Sabbath shall be put to death. The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, to observe it throughout the generations as an eternal covenant. It shall be a sigh for all time between Me and the people Israel. For in six days, G-d made the heavens and earth, and on the seventh day, He ceased from work and was refreshed." -Exodus 31:12-31:17

After that, there is a one-verse coda (Exodus 31:18) in which G-d gives Moses the two tablets. Normally, I wouldn't throw such a long verse out there, but I had to illustrate in order to ask the following questions. Why was this decree a part of the instructions of the Tabernacle? Even more importantly, this passage juxtaposes with the Golden Calf incident. Given that juxtaposition is a standard hermeneutical tool in Jewish interpretation, it begs the questions: Why did G-d juxtapose Shabbat with idolatry? In all sincerity, G-d just handed Moses two tablets, one of which said "Remember the Sabbath." Plus, G-d was with Moses for forty days up at Mount Sinai. There has to be some reason why this particular decree was put in the text, so what is the connection between Shabbat and idolatry? 

First, it would be prudent to ask what the significance behind Shabbat is. The Exodus passage [above] points to the Creation story in which G-d created for six days and desisted from creation on the seventh day. In Deuteronomy 5:15, we are given a second explanation, which is that the Israelites were once slaves in the land of Egypt and that G-d freed them. We have both the Creation and Exodus narratives as bases for Shabbat observance. Even with this, the connection between Shabbat and idolatry is still unclear, so let's get at idolatry for a bit.

What is idolatry? In the case of the Golden Calf, it was prostrating oneself before a statue and worshiping a physical object either as a representation or actually as a deity. However, worshiping idols is more than statues. We can worship money becoming workaholics or obsessed with material consumerism. Pursuing physical pleasure in a hedonistic fashion is another form of idolatry. So is pursuing glory for the sake of one's ego. Idolatry can take many forms, even in the 21st century.

To tie Shabbat and idolatry together, a lack of Shabbat, at least for a Jew, is a form of idolatry. G-d gave the Jewish people Shabbat. Even partaking in creative acts (which is closer to the Jewish definition of "work") is a form of idolatry because it shows that we, as humans, need to always remain in control. On Shabbat, we relinquish our need to control, our need to do, and instead, we just are. As R. Aryeh Kaplan brings up, "Man's act of asserting his dominance over nature makes him a slave to it. All week long, man is rule by his need to dominate the world....but somehow, his most basic humanity is submerged by his occupation. On the Sabbath, all this is changed. Every man is a king [and every woman a queen], ruling his own destiny..."

Part of the gift of Shabbat was to make sure that we did not become our occupations because when we work all the time, that's exactly what happens. It's all too tempting to keep going and say "I'm never tired." Even if you don't realize it, having an established day of rest actually nurtures both the body and the spirit. While some think it's slavery to not be able to use their phones or do work for a day, it's by far a bigger form of slavery to think that you can't do without it for a day.

Don't take this as "anti-work" or a spiel to justify a non-productive life. The passage in Exodus 31 still very much says "you shall work for six days." When it's not Shabbat, Jews are meant to be hard-working and productive. It's that G-d has provided the Jewish people with a sense of work-life balance, and Jews should take Him up on that offer.

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