The Game We Play with the Almighty


This week’s Parsha is a double portion as well as a conclusion to Sefer Shemos, the Book of Exodus. The Parsha starts with Moshe gathering (“Va-yakhel”) Bnei Yisroel into an assembly. He did this, the Midrash and the Zohar tell us, on the day after Yom Kippur, when Moshe brought down the second Tablets of the Ten Commandments, a sign that G-d had forgiven B’nei Yisroel for the Sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe Rabeinu then gathered, the Torah states, kol adas bnei yisroel—“the entire congregation of Israel.”  Unlike other instances, when Moshe addressed different groups within B’nei Yisroel, here he gathered ALL of them. The Torah uses the term Vayakhel, even though it seems obvious that Moshe would have to have gathered all B’nei Yisroel in order to address them all. Why is the word (and the act) of assembling the entire congregation mentioned here?

The opening verse further states: eleh ha-d’varim—“These are the things” that G-d commanded. Though the Torah uses the plural, it seems that the only thing discussed in these opening three verses is Shabbos. But then why would there be a need for a whole gathering of B’nei Yisroel; haven’t they been told about the laws of Shabbos before? The Ramban and Ibn Ezra therefore say that this must also be referring to the Mishkan, which follows. “D’varim” is plural because it refers to both the Shabbos and the building of the Mishkan. Further, these commentaries say, there needed to be a huge gathering (hence the word, Vayakhel) because there were so many details to be gone over in this mitzvah of constructing the Mishkan.

The Kli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague; 1550–1619) has a few problems with this interpretation. First he points out that the section relating to the Mishkan has its own introduction in verse 35:4: “And Moshe said to the entire assembly of B’nei Yisroel, ‘This is the matter [note the singular] concerning which Hashem has commanded you.” He comes to the conclusion that the “D’varim”—the matters referred to in 35:1—are both the Shabbos and the Mishkan. The Torah emphasizes that the prohibitions of of work on Shabbos apply no less to the work to be done for the Mishkan. In fact, the Torah here calls Shabbos, Shabbos Shabboson L’Ha-shem—“It is a Sabbath of Sabbath to G-d” an unusual phrasing—and then drives the point home by stating, “All who do work on the Sabbath shall be liable to capital punishment.”

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But then we finally can’t help noticing that the Torah uses a strange term with regard to work: instead of saying that, during the six days of the week, “tah’aseh melacha”—“you shall do work,” the Torah says, “Tai-oseh melachah”—“your work shall be done,” implying that somehow, the work will get done by itself. In our lives, we know that earning a living can be a hard thing and a complicated process—yet here it seems to be getting done all by itself. What is the Torah telling us by all these unusual phrases and introductions?

 In order to understand the great importance of keeping Shabbos and its role in our world in Chassidic thought, one must more fully comprehend the consequences of the sin of both Adam and Chava and of the Chet ha’egel—the sin of the Golden Calf. The Midrash tells us that before these sins, the world was in states of absolute “perfection”—first when it was created by G-d, and then when the taint of the unholiness of the Nachash, the snake (which we understand to be the Yetzer Hara—the Evil inclination) was purged out of B’nei Yisroel in the exile and bondage of Egypt.

In both times, the world was a harmonious place imbued with the total divine presence of Hashem. But when Adam and Chava sinned in Gan Eden, the snake’s venom entered the world and filled it with evil. Generations later, B’nei Yisroel were sent to Egypt, where they went through a kind of “detoxification” and were cleansed. They went on to Sinai where they pledged their commitment to G-d by proclaiming the words, Na’aseh v’nishma—“We will do the commandments without any qualification or reservation.” Unfortunately, B’nei Yisroel committed the chet ha-egel, the Sin of the Golden Calf, and instead of going on to living in Messianic times, that old “venom” of the Nachash entered the heart of man. Of course, we are ever grateful to Moshe Rabeinu for pleading our case before the Almighty and saving our lives. Though we were forgiven, however, we were not without that taint—and not without the need to rectify ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that the second Tablets of the Ten Commandments was not simply a “do-over,” and that we were not able to simply “rewind” ourselves even though we were forgiven. This need to begin the long arduous journey to correcting ourselves and removing  the stain of the Nachash required the involve-ment and commitment of everyone—every member of B’nei Yisroel. And so “Vayekhel kol adas b’nei yisroel”—the entire congregation needed to be assembled.

There were no doubt many things Moshe encouraged B’nei Yisroel to do as part of their “rehabilitation,” but the Torah lists only those tasks that are relevant to us today. And the two Mittzvot listed for our benefit are: the building and operation of the Mishkan, and Shabbos—not just the same Shabbat we already knew, but now an extra measure of Shabbos, a “Shabbos of Shabbos to Hashem.” Shabbos now needs to be a day not simply of rest, but of “perfect rest” if we are to make any headway toward our goal of purifying the world. But what is that “perfect rest” and what is a “Shabbos of Shabbos”?

In Chassidus, we say that on Shabbos, it is not enough to simply refrain from work. One must feel that one’s work is “fully done” and the world is complete. It may be difficult to fathom how one can complete large projects and big deals in just six days—look how long it took to put a man on the Moon. So how is it possible to go into Shabbos thinking that all our work is done and we need not devote a single second of thought to what we imagine is still undone and still there for us to do? Isn’t that totally unrealistic?

The answer is really quite simple, though it may appear to be a hard thing to act on. We must invest all our energy into spiritual pursuits of holiness and look upon our work not something as that we must do in order to live—if that were true, the Torah would have used the word Ta’aseh—“you shall do your work”; but the Torah uses the word Tai-oseh—on six days, our work will get done, with or without our efforts, our talents, our genius. To observe Shabbos fully and to turn it into a tool for purifying the world and spreading Kedushah—holiness—in it, we need to look at the world and our work in the workplace in a whole new way.

The Psalmist (Tehilim 128:2) tells us: “When you will eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it will be well with you.” The Midrash tells us that this repetition is not just poetic: “you shall be happy” means, “in This World”; and “it will be well with you” means, “in the World to Come”. King David is telling us is that the work we do is successful or not, not as a result of our talents. Every gift that we receive from the world and from the work of our hands is really a gift from G-d. So it’s all right to devote one’s physical energies to work—and we will make believe that is how we earn our livelihood. But we need to devote the best of our resources—our minds, our thoughts, our creativity and our study, to the service of G-d, and that means prayer, meditation, learning and seeking understanding and inspiration. This is the game we play with the Almighty: we imagine that the wealth that we accumulate and the success we enjoy are the products of our own efforts and our own talents. How vain and foolish is such thinking—nothing but a fantasy! All our sustenance comes as a gift from Hashem, even with all our efforts and the application of our talents.

If all of our passion, intelligence and emotional commitment go into the toils of life during the work week, then we will be too tired to serve and pray and study when we have “spare time” on Shabbos. For the Shabbos is not “spare time” at all—it’s our “prime time”—when we have set aside a day to devote the best of who we are and what we can do to the service of Hashem.

Now this approach does not get high marks in the business schools of the world. The values that drive people in business or in any other human endeavor are often perseverance, total commitment, uncompromising dedication—and no small measure of “smarts”. Such is the tenor of our times. The great success stories of the modern world are often held up as shining examples of these values paying off. But think about it for a minute.  If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there are many thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs every bit as creative and talented as Bill Gates who simply didn’t “make it” the way Gates did. It doesn’t mean they are not brilliant; it simply means that they did not have G-d’s blessings when it came to livelihood.

This reorientation (into this new way of looking at life, and into this little game we play with the Creator) begins as it should: with Moshe Rabeinu assembling the entire congregation, men and women, young and old, to begin the process of correcting Am Yisroel and the world, and making it fit (once again, as it was at Sinai) for the age of Moshi’ach.

By:Rabbi Reuven Wolf


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