Friday, March 11, 2016

Parashat Pekudei: Honoring the Completion

This week the people finish building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). They bring all of the parts they have built to Moshe and he looks at all of it and blesses them.

As the Sefat Emet and others point out, this act of finishing and then looking at the product and blessing parallels the creation of the world. Indeed, the same verb, a rather uncommon one, is used for finishing in both cases – vayikhal. In both cases, work was done and then proclaimed to be finished and blessed. In the creation of the world, what follows this first completion of work is Shabbat.

I think there is something important to be learned here about marking the finishing of things. I don’t think we do this often enough. I know for myself there is a tendency to consider it an unimportant, almost conceited act to celebrate an act of completion. And also a waste of time -- there are other tasks yet to be accomplished and we are always rushing on to the next project.

Not taking the time to note a completion is a form of greed and grasping, I now realize. It is as if we are saying “this is not enough.” It is never enough for us. We always have to do more, accomplish more. It is like eating one food while thinking about what food comes next, never taking the time to appreciate what you have, always looking for more. Yes, ambition is helpful, and striving is a positive thing, but the lesson of completion is the lesson of Shabbat – there is also a time to be done and to notice that we are done and celebrate it.

At the heart of the celebration of completion is not pride but appreciation, appreciation for the beautiful entirety of a thing like the Mishkan, and gratitude that God has granted us the strength and time to reach this completion. We don’t want to just throw out our work and move on, but to honor it.

This week I will finish my first masekhet (tractate) of gemara ever in my life, through the Daf Yomi program. I feel excited by it, but I had been pushing those feelings down, telling myself it is just ego that makes me want to celebrate. The fact is, though, that the tradition does celebrate such completions formally with a siyum and there is a lesson in these celebrations. We need to stop and honor the completion, as an act not of conceit but on the contrary, of humility and gratitude – how thankful we are to have, with God’s help, reached this day. May we all celebrate many such completions!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Parashat Vayakhel: On Shabbat, Fire, and Blessings that We Don't Earn

The parsha starts with Shabbat, and there is one example of the type of work one may not do on Shabbat: Do not kindle fire.

Now this prohibition was the source of a famous disagreement between the Karaites (who did not accept the Oral Law) and the rabbis. The Karaites claimed that, because of this prohibition against fire on Shabbat, Jews were required to sit in the dark on Friday night, without the benefit of light or fire. The rabbis, on the other hand, instituted the lighting of candles before Shabbat precisely for this reason – since it is not the enjoyment of fire but its creation that is prohibited according to them, light should be kindled prior to Shabbat so that one may have its benefit on that night.

There is something very significant about this distinction between the lighting of fire and its enjoyment. The parallel case is the manna. Manna did not fall on Shabbat, but on Friday the Israelites would gather twice as much manna, and unlike other days, it would not decay over night but be available for consumption on Shabbat. What is prohibited on Shabbat is thus not the enjoyment of labor, but its active doing.

Separating the labor involved in producing a benefit and the benefit itself is part of the message of Shabbat. We make the mistake of thinking that we only receive what we deserve, that there is some quid pro quo in life – we work and therefore we eat. We gather wood and light it and therefore have fire. If we did not work and did not light the wood, there would be no food and no fire.

This is true to some extent, and that is why we have the 6 work days. But to some extent it is also not true and this is the message of Shabbat: Not everything we receive comes to us because we deserve it. Some of it is simply a gift, a blessing from above, which we did absolutely nothing to earn.

This message leads to two conclusions. The first is gratitude. We didn’t earn our food or our light or our children or our many blessings; we acknowledge that they are gifts and feel an overflow of gratitude toward God. Second, there is some relief here; the pressure to actually deserve our gifts, to earn them, is intense and gnawing. Once we acknowledge that free gifts are the very nature of creation and the universe, we can relax into them, accept them as an overflow of love from above, and give out to those around us a similar unearned overflow. As God has blessed us for no reason, so we bless others for no reason.

This Shabbat, feel the power of eating without working, the notion of not needing to deserve what we are given.