Shabbat and the suspension of purpose

The core prohibition of Shabbat is melechet machshevet, work that has an intentional goal, because what God did for the six days of Creation was to create intentionally.

 I love you just the way you are: Fred Rogers and his wife, Joanne, sitting at a piano. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
I love you just the way you are: Fred Rogers and his wife, Joanne, sitting at a piano.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Many years ago, I was part of a pre-Shabbat meditation group in my synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts. Midway through our session, a child outside began to whine in a very loud and irritating voice. Aware that the distraction might be distressing us, our teacher said, “Think of it as just sound.”

She was letting us know that it wasn’t the pure sensation that was causing us distress. It was the meaning we attached to it: “Why is this annoying child whining and interfering with our pre-Shabbat peace? Why aren’t his parents disciplining him?” Our teacher’s thinking was that if we could detach ourselves from these meanings, or assign a different, more compassionate meaning to the sound (“This poor child is in desperate need of a nap”), our anger might be lessened.

A central goal of Shabbat if to get us to detach ourselves temporarily from the meanings we have assembled during the week, and to train ourselves to hear “pure sound.” The core prohibition of Shabbat is melechet machshevet, work that has an intentional goal, because what God did for the six days of Creation was to create intentionally.

The rabbis tell us that before God created our world, He entertained many possibilities, but rejected them. Finally, God created light, and saw “that it was good (ki tov).” The words ki tov are God’s way of saying: “This is what I intended. I’m sticking with this one.” Intention, purpose and commitment are all wrapped up in these two words.

Being created in God’s image means that we are capable of intentional acts. We are free to choose among possibilities. And to choose is to commit to a path, a purpose.

Shabbat candles (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)Shabbat candles (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

This movement from possibility to purpose is reflected in the weekday morning service. During the first blessing before the Shema, we proclaim:

Ma rabu ma’asecha Adonai, kulam b’chochma asita! (How magnificent are your works, O Lord, in wisdom you have made them all.)

This verse is a quotation from Psalm 104, in which the poet marvels at the stunning beauty and variety of God’s created world from the young lions that roar for their prey to the power of the sea that contains numberless creatures. When we admire the world in this way, we are in attention mode. Our stance is one of appreciation and wonder. We are not judging at this moment. We are simply taking it all in.

As we move toward the Shema, we move from non-directed attention to intention and focus.

The words for directed attention in rabbinic literature are kavannat halev. The verb l’chaven in Hebrew means ‘to aim.’ So, we can translate kavannat halev as “directed consciousness.”

It is no accident that this moment of supreme focus is preceded by the language of love. Just before we recite the Shema, we say:

Baruch ata Adonai, ha-bocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahava. (Blessed are You, God, who chooses His people Israel with love.)

Love is always an act of choice, a focusing, a narrowing of the field, and yes, an act of judgment. When God sought a love partner for Adam, God first brought him all of the animals of the field. But what began with possibility culminates in a judgment. When Adam sees Eve for the first time, he proclaims: “Zot ha’paam! I choose her!” And the choice of love implies a profound commitment.

In the same spirit, just before we say the Shema, we are reminded that God has chosen us. A moment later, we choose God, and in making that choice we commit to loving God “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.” Love begins with possibility and culminates in commitment. We think of love as an opening of the heart. But it is also a closing of the heart, a final answer, a focusing of our emotion on one person, or one God.

Thus, from the unbounded possibility of ‘ma rabu/how varied are Your works, O Lord’ we move to the focused energy of the Shema.

Just before we recite the Shema, we recite these words:

V’yached et levaveinu l’ahava u’l’yirah et sh’mecha (Unify our hearts to love and revere your name.)

Va’havienu l’shalom mei’arbah kafot ha’aretz (Gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth)

As we recite these words, we physically enact our focused mindset by gathering the tzitzit/fringes of the four corners of our tallit and bringing them together in one hand. The nature of commitment is that all of our energy is concentrated on a single point, a single cause, a single person. That’s what gives a commitment to a relationship such great power. It is not by chance that this is precisely the moment that we commit ourselves to one God:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.)

The weekday prayer service is an imagination game we play in which we visualize ourselves making the journey from a variety of choices to a commitment to a powerful purpose. That commitment requires that the totality of us be present. Thus:

V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chol levavcha, u’vchol nafshecha, u’v’chol m’odecha (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might).

God is One because we aspire to be one. We aspire to live lives of coherent purpose. And for that we need kavanat halev, directed consciousness. Purpose gives our life energy, coherence, vitality. But the concentration of energy we need to develop a sense of purpose requires us to narrow our angle of vision. And in the process of this focusing, we can miss important things.

There is a famous experiment in which subjects are directed to watch a video and to count the number of times a basketball is thrown from one person to another. At one point, a person in a gorilla suit takes center stage and waves his arms around for several seconds. Most people who watch the video never notice that the gorilla was ever there.

That’s because when we are focused on a particular purpose, our field of vision is necessarily narrowed. Focus is very useful in marshaling our energies toward a task that requires a great deal of determination. But focus also blinds us to the gorilla that is waving his hands right in our faces.

The danger of such tunnel vision is illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel. In this story, the builders build in one direction only, vertically. It is in the nature of great builders to produce structures that are tall and narrow. The physical narrowness of skyscrapers is a tangible expression of the focused mindset required by human ambition to achieve a great purpose. Such an undertaking often requires human beings to be regarded as mere pawns to be sacrificed all too readily in the march toward some glorious goal. Bereishit Rabbah tells us that when a brick fell from the tower, there would be great weeping. But when a person fell to his death from the tower, no one paid any attention.

The problem with a life that is too heavy in purpose is that we can begin to look at other people instrumentally. But we are more than instruments for someone else’s purpose, and so is everything around us. A life of purpose is a richer life than a life that is unfocused, random and incoherent. But we can get the meaning wrong. In moving from possibility to purpose, we may limit our vision too much. So we need to regularly re-introduce possibility into our consciousness. In order to correct for the imbalances of a meaning-making, purposeful life, we need a day that radically shifts our mindset in the opposite direction.

That day is Shabbat.

On Shabbat, we temporarily suspend judgment and intention. We let go of purpose and meaning. Instead, we cultivate a state of mind of acceptance, openness and non-directed attention. The Torah says:

Six days you shall work and do all of your work. The rabbis ask: “Is it possible for a person to complete all of his work in six days? After all, there is always a new challenge, a new goal to achieve.” Rather, say the rabbis, “On Shabbat, a person should imagine that he has actually completed all of his work.” (Mechilta de’Rabbi Yishmael, 20:9)

Six days a week we judge the world and ourselves and find them wanting. But one day of a week, Shabbat, we take a break from improving ourselves and everyone around us. We cast all judgment aside and we engage in an act of radical acceptance. We are to imagine that the world is perfect as it is.

Not only do we not lack physical comforts; there is nothing lacking in our relationships. Therefore, on this day we suspend all criticism of our loved ones, the world, ourselves. Shabbat is a day to say to our husbands and wives, our children, our neighbors and ourselves, in the immortal words of Fred Rogers: “I love you just the way you are.”

In the Sinai wilderness, for six days, our biblical ancestors gathered the manna that would feed them. On the sixth day, God gave us a double portion to suffice for two days, and no gathering was permitted on Shabbat. It is significant that the one biblical example of an individual being punished for violating the Shabbat was the m’koshesh etzim, the gatherer of wood.

The weekday is a time for ingathering, of gathering the four corners of our tallit and the scattered forces of our soul. Determination requires a concentration of our energy. The worship of One God, the single-minded loyalty to a great cause, requires us to devote ourselves b’chol levecha, u’v’chol nafshecha, u’v’chol m’odecha/with all of our heart, soul and might. And that is why these words are preceded almost immediately by words of ingathering: va’havienu l’shalom mei’arba kanfot ha’aretz/bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth. In Jewish practice, as we say these words, we close our hand around the four corners of the tallit that we have gathered together.

But great purpose is only one-half of the human equation. The heart is a muscle. It expands and contracts. There is a time for gathering and a time for opening. The rhythm of Shabbat and weekday mimics the beating of the human heart. The weekdays are a time for ingathering, for concentrated energy, for determined, intentional action, for building. Shabbat is for attention, an opening of the mind and the heart. It is a time to stop building the tower and notice the people who are building it.  ■

Jay Rosenbaum is the rabbi emeritus of Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, WA. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, ‘Purpose and Possibility: A Jewish Spiritual Path to Creating a Life That Matters.’