It can be difficult when Shabbat arrives. We sometimes find ourselves consumed by various tasks and responsibilities which make an enforced 25 hours of non-work quite a difficult proposition. I remember while being at University the self-discipline which was required to put essays and papers to the side, and to spend an entire day not working or studying. These essays were important, and they needed to be finished, but Shabbat provided an obligatory pause for rest and recuperation.
Taking a day of rest in our 24-7 society can seem difficult, and almost impossible, but surely we all require a day of rest, to take some time for ourselves, our family and friends.
In this week’s Torah portion the final instructions for the Mikdash (Tabernacle) are given, and Bezalel is introduced to us as the man who will lead this project. However, before building can begin, prior to the work commencing, we are given the commandment of Shabbat again ‘You shall keep My Shabbat as a sign of the covenant between Me and you throughout your generations’ (Exodus 31:13).
There is an important message for us in this chain of events. We are essentially told that even a project as significant as building God’s dwelling place on earth – the Mikdash – should be stopped so that everyone can take a day of rest on Shabbat. Pikuach Nefesh – the obligation to save a life, is the only activity which is more important than the observance of a day of rest.
While we may celebrate the obligation to take a day of rest, the severity of the commandment, as it is given in Ki Tissah, can be a little uncomfortable. ‘Anyone who defiles it shall surely be put to death, for anyone who does work on it; his soul shall be cut off from his people’ (Exodus 31:14).
The punishment of death for breaking Shabbat seems harsh in the extreme. It is also apparent that the text does not specify what actually qualifies as work on Shabbat, and how a person might desecrate it. However, the problem remains that death is a punishment threatened by God.
However, when one looks at the text the Hebrew does not say that someone or something will kill this person, rather it says: mot yumat, which is most readily translated as ‘will surely die’. The punishment for not observing Shabbat is not literal death, it is a figurative death. The person who never takes a moment to rest from their work, observing Shabbat, it is as though they are dead – rest is a necessary part of life. Death is not a punishment for breaking Shabbat, it is a metaphorical consequence.
Similarly, when it says that ‘his soul shall be cut off from his people’, it is a consequence, not a punishment. The person who completely absents themselves from Shabbat loses their place in the community, as they lose their engagement with the community. It is not a case of being actually cut off, but their soul will lose the sense of connection with the rest of the community.
If Shabbat is important enough for the Israelites to take a break when building the Mikdash, the house in which God will dwell; then is there any work which can not be delayed for 25 hours so that we can rest, recuperate and spend time with our loved ones and community?