On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Ki Tisa: Just Rest

Parashat Ki Tisa features what is arguably one of Judaism’s most powerful teachings: no matter how busy you are, and no matter how important the task at hand is, you must rest. In this episode, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses the power and importance of Shabbat, and what Shabbat looks like for Reform Jews today.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares some thoughts with us about the weekly Torah portion. This week in episode 110, he talks to us about Parashat Ki Tisa. He wonders what it means to have a real Shabbat -- a Shabbat of rest.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Ki Tisa from the Book of Exodus. It comes as the narrative in the Torah has been about the planning to build the first praying place as our ancestors wander through the desert. In this week's parashah, there's a huge drama having to do with the Golden Calf, but before that, there's a very powerful teaching. And the teaching is, as busy and as important as the task of building the first praying place is in the middle of Ki Tisa, we learned that no matter how important a task is, there's something called the Sabbath. And on that day the work stops. On that day, the building, and the planning, and the changing, and the shaping -- important though it is, has to stop. If that is such a powerful teaching for whatever it is that you're doing right now, whatever it is that you do every day, that takes your energy and your time, is there in the rhythm of each of our lives a place where we take a time out, a place where we say -- you know what? Not today. Today is my day to regenerate. Today is my Shabbat. So, I just would raise the question for all of us about how we can create a seventh day that's different from the other days? How natural that is, what we do on that day to make it different. Our Jewish tradition has a host of things for us to do. But I just love that in, maybe this 21st century moment, the idea of a Sabbath is arguably more important and more essential to our spiritual well-being than almost any other time in our history.

One of my wonderful teachers is a woman named Sylvia Boornstein, [who] teaches meditation and spiritual practice. And I remember having the chance to study with Sylvia. She wrote a great book, "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There." Right? The flip of "don't just sit there, do something." And she says, powerfully, that we all need a place where we can simply be: not do, not build, not worry, not all those things, but actually a place simply to be. To be who we are. To be at one with the world around us, with nature.

And I think that all of us who are technologically connected to our cell phones and our laptops and our iPads -- on and on -- their ability to actually step away from all of that technological connectedness, to unplug and to find a way to be in harmony with a moment, to be still, to take time -- whether it's formally to pray with the community, to have time to meditate quietly, to have a Sabbath meal with friends and family, where we can joyfully sing and reflect and not worry about what we have to do afterwards. I found that early on in observing Shabbat, that even taking my watch off was one of the most powerful ways to observe Shabbat. OK, what happened if I got carried away? And the walk that I was taking went a little bit longer? Were they going to miss a meeting, was I going to miss the endless to do's?

I love one particular teaching from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of blessed memory, who was one of the firebrands of our Reform Movement. He writes, "the work that is forbidden by Jewish law on the Sabbath is not measured in the expenditure of energy. It takes real effort to pray, to study, to walk to synagogue. They are rest, but not restful. Forbidden work is acquisition, aggrandizement, altering the world." And I love the way in which he articulates to be in a Sabbath mode doesn't mean that I'm asleep (although having a few extra minutes of sleep is probably a good thing for all of us). It can be actually very taxing of all of our energy, all of our mental and spiritual abilities. But it's different from the day to day rhythms of life.

I also say that I'm proudly a Reform rabbi, and I sometimes rail against the traditional categories. For example, gardening is in the Jewish legal tradition, as we define work, is considered work. I'm a guy who spends a lot of time sitting at my computer, being at meetings, and being inside. So, for me, on a Shabbat afternoon, if I get my hands into the soil, if I can actually take care of flowers and trees and plants and a lawn -- to me, that is Shabbat, that's regenerating, that's actually caring for creation in a very tangible way. Now, I know my more traditional friends, some of whom listen to the podcast, are going to say that's not actually the Sabbath. Let's say -- we have to create something that's real. I have to say also that in my circle of friendship, I know a lot of people who probably are close to workaholics, or the kind of people that, we love our work and we take great pride in our work. But the idea that, you know, a series of questions about what constitutes your general relationship to work. You know, a question like do you get more excited about your work than about family or anything else? Do you take work with you to bed on weekends, on vacation? I mean, if some of those kinds of questions started to make you a little bit nervous.... they make me nervous too. But I think this obsession with work and not growing our other dimensions is actually one of the serious issues I think we all need to face. So, I'm not preaching here on my soapbox that we all have to observe Shabbat, but I think the Torah says in this week's parashah: what happens if we don't? What we die a spiritual death, will a part of us atrophy? How is it that no matter how important we are -- and we are all very important -- that we can't actually take a time out from the busy-ness and to find a way to read, to spend quiet time with the people that we love, to catch up with someone that we don't often catch up with? That's not a spiritual luxury. That may in fact be an urgent human need for all of us.

So the Torah right before the actual Tablets are given to them to Moses in Chapter 31 of the Book of Exodus, that's where we have teaching of Shabbat. And we have this beautiful v'shamru prayer that we say regularly. That's really a part of all of our liturgical awareness. We sing it as part of the Friday night liturgy, we sing it on Shabbat morning at kiddush. The idea that through the Sabbath, we will be va'yinafash, that we will be re-souled, a part of us will be regenerated. And I just hope that however it is, maybe we will capture a Friday night peace of Shabbat, maybe we start and capture Shabbat morning or Shabbat afternoon, but I think this is something of a universal desire.

There's a wonderful Jewish organization that sent me this little pouch for my cell phone, and, you know, the idea of turning off that cell phone and putting it in a little sleeping bag for twenty-five hours, I know for some of us, it is causing us to go into some kind of withdrawal. But what it allows me to tune in to, what it allows me to be attentive to by not being in all of my normal work mode, making a list of the things I have to do today. What does it mean to accomplish Shabbat? Well it is that va'yinafash, that being re-souled, that being as Sylvia Boorstein said "don't just do something, sit there." Take a moment and look at Creation. Probably the most brilliant and inspiring teacher of Shabbat is Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a number of books that many of us are -- everyday books that we open and read from.

I just want to give you one quote from his book, "The Sabbath," and in it he gives the philosophy of time, that we as Jews don't venerate space, we venerate time. And time is our most valuable commodity. So here's Herschel's teaching. He says there is a realm of time where the goal is not to have, but to be. Not to own, but to give. Not to control, but to share. Not to subdue, but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space the acquisition of things of space becomes our sole concern. So before I wish you a Shabbat shalom, I hope that Herschel's words, or maybe the frame from Sylvia Boornstein, or maybe the frame from this week's parashah Ki Tisa that says that a part of us will atrophy and die if we can't capture a space that allows us to regenerate, that all of us will see the power. Having a sabbatical for a professional means you get a chance to study, to think in new fresh ways -- well, Shabbat is that sabbatical, each and every week. And I don't mean to be slavish or literal that it has to be only a traditional Sabbath, but some way that we can set apart that day and to be different in that day, I think will change all the other days. Change who we are, and what we collectively build.

So, I don't know when you're listening to the podcast, but I'm actually recording this on a Friday afternoon. In a couple of hours, it's going to be Shabbat. I'm going to take the gearbox of my soul and put it into a bit of a neutral gear and not the fifth or the sixth or seventh gear that I live in. And I'm just going to say that every week, it's a bit of a leap of faith to do so. But it's a leap of faith. It has been regenerative. And I hold it out for all of us to find a piece of this seventh day that could help us va'yinafash, to be re-souled, renewed, reinvigorated so that we can be our best selves. So I wish you a Shabbat Shalom on this Sabbath day that you're either about to enter, or later this week will enter.

Don't just do something. Sit there. Shabbat Shalom.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you like what you've heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!