Friday, March 2, 2012

Laborious Covenants

In Shemot 32:15, we read: “Sheshet yamim ye’aseh melacha, u’vayom ha’shvi’i Shabbat shabbaton kodesh, Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day there will be the holy Shabbat.” We have been taught from a young age of Shabbat’s sanctity and beauty, and so, in reading this pasuk, many of us may skim over the “work” part and jump right to Shabbat. Avot D’Rabbi Natan, however, does no such prioritizing. The brit olam (eternal covenant) referred to in the next pasuk of Shemot is not just referring to Shabbat, but also to work. “K’shem she’ha’Torah nitna bivrit, kach ha’melacha nitna bivrit, Just like the Torah was given by covenant, so too is work given by covenant,” we learned this week in Avot D’Rabbi Natan.

To assert that work is part of our covenant with God is a very profound statement. Work, then, is not a means to Shabbat but rather has value in and of itself. Like God, we work, and, also like God, we rest. Perhaps what the rabbis mean here is that there is something about labor that creates a partnership between God and people. “According to the effort is the reward,” it says in Pirkei Avot. It makes sense (and is an accepted truth) that our grades will reflect the amount of studying we did or that our gardens will blossom according to the amount of care we put into them. This same principle can be applied to a relationship with God. Houses don’t build themselves and (unfortunately) calculus tests are not miraculously studied for without the time being applied. So too, a relationship with God doesn’t come to be if there is no human input. This linkage of labor and Shabbat reminds us that we need to work really, really hard to become God’s partners (even when it sometimes feels like there is little Divine output), and then we also have to stop that work and experience God.

After giving several examples of the importance of work, the text quotes Rabbi Tarfon. “Even the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not allow his Presence on Israel until they had done work, as it is written (Shemot 25), v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, And they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” God’s presence is found only after the Children of Israel do the work of creating space in their encampment and finding time in their lives for God.

In the Psalm for Shabbat, we recite the phrase, “b’maaseh yadecha aranen, I rejoice in the works of Your hand.” By fulfilling both the labor and Shabbat aspects of our covenant, this statement can become one that is reciprocal. When I look around the world and see beauty and humanity, I can say to God: “I rejoice in the work of Your hand.” It is partly with this in mind that I strive to live a life in which I may merit having God say the same words back to me. When we work to fix the parts of the world that are not so beautiful and that lack humanity, our fervently whispered prayers are lovingly boomeranged back to us, as God affirms: “I rejoice in the works of your hands.” I often think about to what extent yismach Hashem b’maasav, God rejoices in His works (humans). But maybe the more pertinent question, and one that I feel more sure in answering, is how much God rejoices in the maasim of his maasav, the work (deeds) done by His work (humanity).

Alef Dalet Gordon wrote, “We lack the habit of labor--not labor performed out of external compulsion, but labor to which one is attached in a natural and organic way.” I often compartmentalize Zionism and rabbinic texts into separate groupings, but I love thinking about Gordon’s “natural and organic” labor as an integral piece of the Divine covenant. To have God dwell among us, we need to create a Covenant, one that encompasses working, creating, and doing with keeping and remembering. The authenticity of our Covenant lies in our ability to fully immerse ourselves in what we are doing. I find that there is nothing as satisfying as fully pouring myself into writing a paper or using all of my strength to shovel snow. Likewise, there is nothing like giving up all of my being to Shabbat.

As I write this, Shabbat is only a half-hour away. And so I must end here to attend to the non-labor part of our covenant. Shabbat Shalom!

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