Idle, not Idol

Recently I was asked by a member of the congregation about how we understand Exodus 31. She was asked by a neighbor about the Jewish understanding of this text and wanted to check about what she understood it to mean. The relevant text (v. 14-15) reads, “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death”

My read of this text is that while perhaps at one time, in another historical-sociological setting, it may have meant actual death or actual expulsion, the way we understand it today is as metaphor. Shabbat–a sacred day set aside for rest, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday–is so integral to Jewish practice and a Jewish spiritual identity that to turn away from Shabbat is to turn away from tradition, from one’s community, from God. Ignoring Shabbat cuts oneself off from among one’s kin; ignoring Shabbat is a type of spiritual death.

And this week this passage comes up in our weekly reading. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, spans Exodus 30:11-34:34. The narrative arc of the parasha spans the last of Moses’s time on the mountain to when he descends to find the Israelites, left alone for 40 days, worshiping and holding a festival to a Golden Calf which they had built.

The details of the beginning part of the parasha, the time when Moses on the mountain, are concerned with the last of the laws God reveals to Moses: the Israelites are to take a census, the specs for the last of the tools of the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary the Israelites are to build and use), the recipe for the incense and Shabbat.

This is not the only mention of Shabbat in the Torah. It is found in the 10 Commandments (both tellings) and in other places as well. And the mention of Shabbat in our parasha is not exclusively in the verses above. In fact, the next two verses are probably two of the most well-known verses relating to Shabbat since it is a part of our liturgy–the “veshamru,” which we sing on Friday night and as part of Saturday morning Kiddush.

The veshamru, verses 16-17, reads:

“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all times; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.”

I love this version of the Shabbat commandment because of the verbs found in these verses and what it means for our relationship to this sacred practice. First, in the end of the text is a wonderful verb, “and was refreshed” (vayinafash), derived from the noun nefesh. As quoted in the JPS Commentary on Exodus, nefesh is “a multi-valent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being.” (p. 202) Wow. This provides, too, a nice counterbalance to the talk of death above. Not observing Shabbat is like death because the point of Shabbat is to be life-giving.

But the verbs in the first part of the selection are just as powerful. First we are to “keep” (veshamru) Shabbat, and observe (la’asot) Shabbat. Both active verbs. And the translation of “observe” for la’asot makes sense in context, but loses another valence of the verb: to make, or to do. So the irony is that to observe the day of rest we must be active. In other words, Shabbat will come no matter what. Time passes, six days pass and the seventh day will come. But to mark the seventh day as Shabbat takes affirmative steps on our part.

There is a traditional means of Shabbat observance. But there is also different ways to have a Shabbat consciousness, to “make” Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to us. Each week as part of a short meditation during Friday night services, I invite those assembled to ask themselves, “How am I going to rest this Shabbat? How am I going to renew myself this Shabbat?” So, how do you observe Shabbat in a way that is life-giving? [Check this out if you are looking for a way, the Sabbath Manifesto. The folks here are declaring this weekend the “National Day of Unplugging”]

Recently I was having a conversation with my new colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters, who recently came to town to assume the pulpit of The United Churches. We were talking about the role of “Sabbath” in Christian and Jewish practice. When I was talking about this week’s Torah portion, about the move from Tabernacle to Shabbat to Golden Calf, she asked, “what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf?” It was a wonderful and intriguing question; it was something I hadn’t thought of before. Jewish commentary usually relates this mention of Shabbat to what comes before, to the Tabernacle. It serves as a reminder that even for sacred work, one needs to take a break for Shabbat. And, that in a Jewish theological framework, time trumps space. And, the description of the building of the Tabernacle is also the source of the traditionally prohibited types of work. Connecting Shabbat to the Golden Calf provided some new fodder for thought. (Pun intended)

So what might Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic story of idolatry, one of the worst sins according to the Torah. It represents in the ancient framework a turning away from God to worship other gods. That is what happens in the story of Exodus, the Israelites, worried that their leader Moses has disappeared and God is seemingly absent, construct an idol that they can then worship.

But understood outside this ancient framework, idolatry is something which we see operating today. In our contemporary framework, we often speak of “idolatry” not so much in making and worshiping images of false deities, but in the things, the objects, the material goods which we elevate to an exalted status in our lives. We become obsessed with what we have that we lose sight of relationships or human connection. Idolatry represents the substitution of the tangible for something that is ultimately intangible.

But perhaps we can think of idolatry in relation to time as well. Another characteristic of idolatry is control. Our ancients made the Golden Calf because the absence of Moses reminded them of the lack of control over their lives. They needed something they could manipulate, something they can control. They wanted certainty in the face of uncertainty, without realizing that certainty is an illusion. In our contemporary lives we make idols of time. In order to feel that we are in control, we try to conquer time, we multitask, we overschedule. We use it up and try to create more. We use our mastery of time as a barometer of success, as a source of pride. Those who fill up their time are seen as important, worthy of admiration and accomplished.

But this may not be really the case. A recent study shows that slowing down may lead to a better life. But the Torah has already told us this.

So what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The proximity of the stories tells us that we have a choice: we make Shabbat, or we make an idol of time. We focus on ways to rejuvenate our nefesh, or wear ourselves out worshiping the clock.

The Torah’s message is clear: we need to turn away from the idol, and turn towards the idle.

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