Bereshit: Creating On Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

If you’ve been celebrating the holidays I hope they have been full of
joy and insight. It’s time to announce a slight in of focus for this
weekly commentary- we’ve now completed three years of Torah study
focused on the texts and commentaries, and so I hope you’re ready for
something a bit different. At the urging of the new Chancellor of the
Jewish Theological Seminary, many Conservative rabbis have been
speaking over the holidays about the mitzvot, or “commandments,” but
understood broadly as the actions and spiritual disciplines which are
the core of Jewish practice. I too spoke on Rosh Hashana about the
meaning of mitzvah (notes for those sermons will at some point be up
on the TBE website) and I want to continue the conversation here on
rabbineal-list.

Thus, we’ll still look at the Torah portion every week, but for the
coming year I’ll bring to your attention a mitzvah which is connected
to or found in the parsha, along with my suggestions for how to apply
this mitzvah in your life.

Please feel free to offer feedback, commentary, and suggestions as we
go along.

And with that. . . . .

Tonight we observe Shimini Atzeret, the final holiday of the fall holy
days, the second day of which is known as Simchat Torah, when the
yearly Torah reading is concluded and a new one begins. Because
there’s no space between Simchat Torah and the regular Shabbat of the
new year, we’re going to leave the holiday discussion for next year
and go right into the portion Bereshit, at the beginning of the book
of the same name, Bereshit/ Genesis.

The opening words of Bereshit are familiar to many: “In the beginning.
. . ” with a description of the seven days of creation following. The
seventh day is Shabbat, the Sabbath, because:

“. . . on the seventh day God finished the work that God had been
doing, and The Holy One ceased on the seventh day from all the work
that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it
holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that The
Creator had done.” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:2-3)

The word “Shabbat” comes from a Hebrew root which has among its
meanings to “cease” or “stop,” so when the text says that God “ceased”
the work of creation, the lexical connection is clear: our day of
“ceasing” is a reminder that God stopped creating after the sixth day.
(As an aside, let me be clear here: the official position of
rabbineal-list is that there is no conflict between Biblical
narratives, which teach spiritual truths using narrative and metaphor,
and scientific explanations for the world’s origins.)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book called “The Sabbath,” points out a
slight tension in the text, which is a bit ambiguous as to whether the
work of Creation was finished on the sixth day, leaving the seventh
day with no “creating,” or on the seventh day itself. Heschel quotes a
midrash which says, yes, there was something created on the seventh
day- “menucha,” commonly translated as “rest” but understood to be
more than physical renewal. The rabbis posit that something was
created on the seventh day in order to teach that menucha, as a
concept, is not just “not working” but a positive, active state of
contemplation, of renewal, of peace and wholeness.

The paradox is that we can only achieve menucha- a heightened state of
perspective and spirituality and renewal- if we create space for it by
not filling up our lives with other activities. Heschel stresses over
and over again that Shabbat is not just a bunch of restrictions, but
the ceasing of some kinds of activities creates the opportunity for
something else to happen- the positive experience of menucha, as he
emphasizes.

The mitzvah of Shabbat is central to any serious Jewish spiritual path
because of a simple truth: the world keeps us so busy doing things we
often don’t have time or space or context for just be-ing, for
appreciating the wonder of our existence and our connections to God,
nature, and each other. The practice of Shabbat is something that
grows over time, but initially, one can turn off the tv, the computer,
and the stereo, so that learning, talking and thinking is uncluttered.
Shabbat creates space for walking, sitting in a garden, or reading
something which touches your soul, none of which can happen without
choosing to create menucha on the seventh day.

Moadim L’Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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