This week's Torah reading begins with three verses that seem out of place. Most of this week's portion discusses the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites carried through the desert. However, the text opens with the laws for observing Shabbat, which already were given in Parashat Yitro. Out of the blue, with no apparent connection to the Mishkan, the Torah again tells us:
Traditionally, the mention of Shabbat here, before the completion of the Mikshkan, is interpreted as a sign of the precedence of Shabbat over the building of the Mishkan. Based on this, the ancient rabbis derived the thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on Shabbat. Any work that could be connected to a large building project—from planting crops to carrying objects from one place to another—is forbidden on Shabbat because, as we learn from this week's portion, Shabbat takes precedence over the building the Mishkan.
There is another lesson, though, that we might take from the strange and repetitious appearance of the Shabbat restrictions at the beginning of this week's portion. It is not just that the commandment of Shabbat rest overrides the commandment to build, it is also that the very idea of rest should take precedence over the impetus to work.
Sigmund Freud wrote that human beings require two things to remain human: love and work. We need to love and to be loved. We need to have something to do that gives us a feeling that we are useful and have a purpose. Torah, though, suggests one more thing that we need—rest. We need to have time to sit and reflect on our lives. We need a time when our purpose is not to do, but to consider what all of that work means. This is what Shabbat is.
The odd thing, though, is that our tradition teaches that Shabbat rest actually comes before work. Before we even begin to work, we must take the time to reflect on our labors. It may not make logical sense—why take a break before the work is begun?—but it does make spiritual sense.
Before we lift the hammer, plow the field, or start typing at the keyboard, we need to know what that work means. We need to understand why it matters. We need to reflect on how our struggles in life fit into the larger puzzle of a universe that is a mystery to us.
It can seem like human beings are the only animals that do not understand instinctively the need for rest. Every other creature appears to balance work and rest—like breathing in and out. We are the only animals who are in any danger of intentionally working ourselves to death. And we do it all the time.
When I see the way that people's work takes over their lives in our society, I worry. I see so many people who put work first—their number one priority. If our work life takes such a priority over every other aspect of our humanity, how can we be sure that we will ever rest long enough or deeply enough to ask the question, "What we are working for?"
Shabbat needs to come first—not just in time, and not just in law—but in our hearts. Shabbat, this beautiful gift of deep and spiritual rest, needs to be the touchstone of our lives. Shabbat is not just a break that allows us to catch our breath, it is the first of all of our holy days that allows us to find holiness in every other day.
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