Yitro: Remembering Shabbat, Embracing our Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Greetings from lovely San Diego! I use the word “lovely” in honor of
my 3.5 year old niece Maia, who announced as I took her outside for
a walk that she would not wear a jacket because “I think it’s a
lovely day today.” She has also decided that her favorite game in
the world is banging on the top of my head like a drum; I hope
sitting through several hours of this will not affect this week’s
Torah commentary.

Speaking of this week’s Torah portion, we’re in the parsha named for
Moshe’s father in law, Yitro. Yitro sees Moshe out with the people
from dawn till dusk every day, trying to do everything himself, and
advises him to delegate some responsibilities- a timeless lesson for
us all! After that, Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai, where God tells him to
prepare the people for a great revelation; the Ten Commandments are
spoken on the third day, amid smoke and shofar sounds. The parsha
concludes with a few laws pertaining to both religious and social

Among the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah to “remember the Sabbath
day,” but what many people forget is that Shabbat itself is only
part of these verses:

“Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. You have six days to do
all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your
God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your
daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your
stranger who is in your cities. For [in] six days the Lord made the
heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on
the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and
sanctified it.” (Shmot/Exodus 20:8-11)

In these verses, the seventh day of rest is balanced, as it were, by
the six days of labor, which are also seen as a positive
commandment. Yet classical commentaries ask an obvious question: how
can we get all our work done in six days, in time for Shabbat? Isn’t
there always more to do? One answer is that we should enter into
Shabbat feeling as if all our work was done; “do all your work”
becomes an emotional rather than practical description.

The Torah Temimah, a 19th century anthology of earlier commentaries,
links this idea of “letting go” of what’s left undone with the joy
of celebrating Shabbat:

” ‘Do all your work-‘ can any person finish all his work in six
days? Rather, rest on the Sabbath as if all your work was finished.
This was explained to us [in Jewish law]: “It is a commandment to
enjoy the Shabbat,” . . . Moshe gave us a hint in the Torah when he
said “do all your work.” How can a person do all his work in a
single week? Rather, a person should regard each Shabbat as if all
his work had been completed, and there is no greater joy than this.”

In this view, our ability to enjoy Shabbat rests (as it were) on our
ability to let go of all the myriad tasks still on our “to-do” list
by late Friday afternoon. On one level, this makes sense: if we hold
ourselves to impossible standards, life isn’t going to be very
satisfying or fun. Yet I think the lesson here isn’t only about how
to “let go” and have fun; I think these verses also teach us an
aspect of deeper spiritual growth.

Many of us have fantasies about how our life might turn out if only
we worked a little harder, had more money, spent more time at the
gym, had a different life partner, worked in a different job, and so
on. It’s easy to think that if we only worked a little harder at X
or Y, everything would just “fall into place” and life would be
great. So many people spend life living in a fantasy future of
perfect control; one aspect of spiritual growth is to get out of
that cycle and be fully aware of blessing in the present moment.

This, I think, is the deeper meaning of regarding your work as done
when Shabbat arrives; at that moment, what we have (assuming we’re
not in desparate poverty) is enough. Whatever we’ve achieved with
our hands and brain in the previous six days, we’re still worthy of
the joy of Shabbat, and still invited into relationship with God and
each other.

Shabbat means that our worth and dignity as human beings isn’t
dependent on external factors but instead reflects our inner state;
the joy we experience comes from our deepest being, not the quantity
of our do-ing. There’s never any end to the tasks of a busy
schedule, but Shabbat turns us inward, to a different evaluation of
a life worth living. It’s not just about “letting go” of what’s
undone, it’s also about embracing the deepest truth: joy comes from
getting past our complaints and fantasies and experiencing life as a
blessing and a gift, right now, in this moment, and not just on
Friday afternoon.

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