William Hamilton

Son of Saul and Sacred Deeds

Son of Saul is nominated for best Foreign Language Film at this weekend’s Academy Awards.  It vividly depicts thirty-six hours in the inhuman life of the Auschwitz Sondercomandos, those responsible for gassing and burning thousands of children, women, and men each day.  Saul, the protagonist, becomes determined to honorably bury a child he claims as his son.  Viewers viscerally experience the visual and auditory sensations experienced by Saul.  In the face of dizzying and deafening slaughter, Saul becomes obsessed with doing something sacred.   Unlike most Holocaust related films, there is no time available for characters to dialogue, for their reflection, or for any consideration of larger context.  The singularity of Saul’s task careens him forward.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn of the surpassing power of doing a deed.  “The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, doing the Sabbath for generations as an enduring covenant” (Ex. 31:16).  This is the first of two verses which we pray three times every Shabbat between Friday night and Saturday Kiddush in what has become known as the V’shamru prayer.  A Hasidic comment teaches “the only way to truly observe (v’shamru) the Sabbath is by doing (la’asot) the Sabbath.  Simply, the Sabbath isn’t just about cessation or rest.  Rather than something we accept or greet, it is something we make by doing things that nourish our connections and replenish our souls.

Later in our Sedra, following Moses’ smashing of the Tablets into the blasphemous Golden Calf, he acquires a second set of Tablets from God.  Unlike with the first Tablets, this second set is a joint-venture, with Moses hewing and God writing.  This is what causes Moses’ face to glow.  We are changed by what we do.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It is the deed that carries us away, that transports the soul, proving to us that the greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the center of the ego.”  May our deeds transport our souls this Shabbat.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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