Yayak’hel: Shabbat Here and Now

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord. (Ex. 35:2)

Change and Awakening

If the purpose of the spiritual search is to awaken the seeker, the implication is that, spiritually, most people are sleepwalking through life. Sleep, in this sense, means a lack of awareness of life, stemming largely from the manner in which consciousness flits between past and future, between thoughts of what was and of what will be. It is only when one succeeds in concentrating and being present in the moment that one can “awaken.”

There is a story in the Zen tradition about a disciple who asked his master to show him the way to nirvana. The teacher replied, “Through food and sleep.” The answer puzzled the student – after all, do not all people eat and sleep? But the master explained the difference: when he eats, it is he who eats, and when he sleeps, it is he who sleeps. The capacity to bring absolute presence to every action brings one into contact with existence and forges a connection to the essence of life. That bond is the awakening that we so yearn for.

The metaphor of sleep and wakefulness is a recurring theme in the writings of Rabbi Nahman, who similarly applies it to a general lack of consciousness: “For sleep is the departure of awareness,” he writes (Likutei Moharan 117), and adds, “There are people who while away their days in sleep…for the essence of animation is the mind…and one must be awakened from one’s slumber” (ibid. 60). Elsewhere he instructs his students to focus on the present: “There is nothing in one’s world but the day and moment in which one exists, for the following day is an entirely different world” (ibid. 272). Learning to wake up is thus an important lesson: to be present in life, in the moment; to treat existence with respect, and not to let it pass one by.

Rabbi Nahman’s Shabbat

“And Moses said, ‘Eat that today; for today is a Sabbath unto the Lord’” (Ex. 16:25). Each of the three meals is described as “today” to suggest that one is only to dine at a Shabbat meal for the sake of that day. For there are times when one eats because one has been hungry since yesterday, or so as not to be hungry tomorrow. But at each of the three Shabbat meals, one must eat only for the sake of that day, meaning that those meals are not for the present or the future. (Likutei Moharan 125)

Shabbat meals, Rabbi Nahman writes, have no purpose outside themselves, and one must therefore be present in the here and now when one is eating on the holy day. Sleep on Shabbat also fulfills a spiritual function of presence in the moment. One would think that on Shabbat, one ascends to the same state of nirvana described by the Zen master, where all deeds are oriented toward the present. But a more careful examination of Rabbi Nahman’s words reveals further elements pointing at a connection to the present.

According to Rabbi Nahman, eating on Shabbat connects us to a more profound stratum of reality, allows us to cleave to holiness: “On Shabbat one must literally consume copious amounts of food and drink, for anything consumed on Shabbat is pure divinity, pure holiness” (ibid.). Being in the present, Rabbi Nahman says, not only awakens us but enables an experience of intimacy with God.

A Day That Is All Shabbat

The understanding that Shabbat is a day of presence in the moment is also apparent in a sentence that is added to Grace after Meals on Shabbat: “May the Merciful One bestow upon us a day that is all Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.” What is this “day that is all Shabbat” and for which we yearn? Is it a future reality in which Shabbat extends throughout the entire week? If so, it would seem like a simple quantitative request – that the experience be spread out beyond a single weekday. But the truth is that the essence of Shabbat is concealed from us, and unquantifiable. It is something I always yearn to find the way to, to truly experience.

First, we must understand that the “day that is all Shabbat” is Shabbat itself, and no other day. The Baal Shem Tov says that a person is wherever his consciousness is. When we think on Shabbat about things that happened to us on Friday and about our plans for Sunday, we are not in Shabbat – we do not inherit a “day that is all Shabbat.” Only by isolating ourselves from the past and future, and focusing on the present, can we be present in Shabbat. Only then can we live the day.

The Talmud states, “Long strides diminish a man’s eyesight by a five-hundredth part. What is the remedy? He can restore it with [drinking] the sanctification wine of Sabbath eve” (Berakhot 43b). I heard an explanation, attributed to Rabbi Allen Schwartz, according to which “long strides” refer to the rat race, the endless routine that “diminishes our eyesight” and prevents us from truly seeing life. The antidote is Shabbat, which stops the daily race in its tracks and restores our sight.

Halakha also directs us to imbue Shabbat with that character. Making plans for the following week is forbidden on Shabbat, as is conversing about business, and there is even an added stringency of refraining from thinking about weekday plans.

Life Is Holiness
The experience of encountering the present as an “awakening” is pivotal to Rav Kook’s conception of the essence of life:

…[H]oliness is a quality that transcends every process, so that there is no need to say that [a saintly person] eats in order to learn [Torah], pray, and perform mitzvot, for that is but a middling trait; rather, that eating itself, as well as speaking, and all of the processes and feelings of life are suffused with holiness and light. (Shemona Kevatzim 2:65)

According to Rav Kook, when food is consumed as a means to an end, no matter how virtuous, it is an expression of a “middling trait.” True holiness can only be attained when one recognizes the spiritual value of eating, not only the indirect benefit that it occasions. Hence, our consciousness must be wholly directed at the action we are engaged in at a given moment. The idea is rooted in the manner in which Rav Kook conceives of the relation between life and its source, as he notes several passages earlier:

God’s radiant light, which permeates all of the worlds, animating them and saturating them with the sustenance of supernal bliss from the source of life, infuses all souls and angels, all creatures, with the strength to discern the inner aspect of the sense of life. (Ibid. 2:62)

Our “sense of life” issues from the radiant light of God that suffuses all of reality. That is why “all of the processes and feelings of life are suffused with holiness and light.” When we contemplate the processes and feelings of our lives, we touch life itself, and through it life’s source – God.

Elsewhere, Rav Kook describes an ecstatic experience of becoming subsumed in the supernal holiness through eating. As in the Zen stories, he ascribes significance to the very act of eating, and suggests, like Rabbi Nahman, that the focusing of one’s consciousness facilitates an encounter with the holy.

For Rav Kook, the idea that an action’s significance is a function of its being a means to an end is the “sin of the earth”:

At the dawn of creation, the taste of the tree was also worthy of being like the taste of its fruit. All means that enhance an exalted, universal spiritual process were worthy of being perceived through a spiritual sense, at the same high level of exaltedness and blissfulness with which we conceive [of the goal]. But due to the nature of the earth…only the taste of the fruit, of the final process, the ultimate ideal, is perceived with its blissfulness and splendor. (Orot HaTeshuva 6, 7)

But in the World to Come:

Days will come when creation will resume its original state, and the taste of the tree will be like the taste of the fruit. (Ibid.)

Bridging the dawn of creation and its completion is Shabbat, which is “like the World to Come.” On Shabbat, we return to the Garden of Eden, to a world where the taste of the tree is like the taste of the fruit, where every action has inherent meaning: eat, sleep, live. To touch Shabbat is to touch life, to touch God.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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