Two key passages in this week’s parashah, Torah portion, Ki Tissa, in Exodus chapter 31, contain elements which may be alien to Liberal Jews: God’s dwelling place on earth, the skilfully crafted sanctuary and its sacred vessels feels totally remote from the world of endlessly expendable objects we inhabit; the threat of punishment of death for desecrating the Sabbath is morally repugnant to us; the notion that creation happened in six days, a naïve fairy-tale.

So, what to do?  Should we simply leave out the problematic bits in the Torah and read the rest? Or is there a way to make sense of the text, all of it, on our own terms as Liberal Jews?

I feel there is and that it is a worthwhile task. You see, we are in a very privileged position. As Liberal Jews, the Torah is not the word of God given to Moses on Sinai, which we feel compelled to accept in its entirety; rather it expresses what our ancestors made of their encounter with the Divine. As Liberal Jews, we enjoy the privilege of being able to bring all of who we are, here and now, to the Torah, and to read the ancient texts as if engaged in a dynamic encounter with those who went before us on their journeys with the Eternal.

So how does this relate to the two passages about the Tabernacle and Shabbat, which we find, one after the other at Exodus 31? The common theme is k’dushah, the ‘sacred’. The Hebrew understanding of the sacred is that which is ‘set apart’: the sanctuary was a place, a space, set apart; the Sabbath is a day, a moment in time, set apart. However, while these two forms of holiness are parallel to one another, they are not equivalent to one another.

B’tzalel, the principal craftsman of the sanctuary, was filled with the spirit of God – ru’ach elohim – for his task was sacred: (Ex. 31:3). But for all the attention paid to the sanctuary by the priestly writers, and however magnificent it must have been, holy space represented a compromise of holiness, not its ultimate expression. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in The Sabbath[1], the word ‘holy’ is used for the first time in Torah, not in connection with material things of space, but in connection with time. The creation of the material world is ‘good’ (Gen. 1: 4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 31), but God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy – va-y’kaddeish oto (Gen. 2:3).

So, why the Tabernacle? Are we to understand that, unable to grapple with God and holiness in time, people attempted to contain both in space? Perhaps. But then sacred space – however awesome– is vulnerable. Moreover, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE not only meant the loss of God’s dwelling place, it also involved the loss of our people’s dwelling place, too.

A scattered people cannot be bound together by place, but we can share holy moments in time. And Shabbat is not only one holy moment in time, in many ways it is the holy moment in time that provides the sacred rhythm for Jewish life. But even a holy moment in time needs some substance. While the parashah declares that anyone who works on the Sabbath will be put to death, apart from references to lighting fire (Exodus 35:3) and gathering manna ( Exodus 16:13ff.), the Torah does not outline in detail what constitutes work. So, the rabbis supplemented the Torah references with practical guidelines, and drew up a list of the 39 categories of prohibited work, based on the tasks involved in constructing the Tabernacle.

The rabbis also understood that Shabbat means more than ceasing from work.  ‘The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, la’asot et-ha-shabbat – literally,  to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant throughout their generations’ (Ex. 31:16).This verse in this week’s parashah, suggests that Shabbat has creative possibilities. Indeed, the first reference to Shabbat in Torah indicates that the Sabbath does not follow creation, but is part of it: ‘On the seventh day God completed – va-y’chullu – His work which he had made, and he rested on the seventh day work He had made’ (Gen. 2:2). The text does not say that God completed the work of creation on the sixth day and rested on the seventh day. So, God created something on the seventh day: rest. Only when God created Shabbat, had God completed the work of creation – and interestingly, the Hebrew understanding of completing, from the root Kaf Lameid Lameid, is to make whole.

Jewish tradition outlines the contours of the seventh day. But what do the Shabbat rules mean to us in terms of our lives as Liberal Jews today, who do not feel bound by the prescriptions concerning prohibited work? We are less preoccupied with the not-doing aspect of Shabbat, and more interested in making Shabbat. But the experience of our daily lives makes the question of what we actually make of Shabbat a challenging one. We may distance ourselves from the notion of a world created in six – or seven – days, but the creation story holds other messages for us: that everything in life must be created; that creation is a continuous process, day by day; that work and rest can only be understood in terms of one another; that it is in living our lives, in working and resting, but we come closest to the realm of the Eternal.

And there is another message – but to untangle it, we need to take a closer look at the passage about keeping the Sabbath in the parashah. The text closes with a phrase which is usually translated,’ God ceased from work and rested’ – shavat va-yinafash (Ex. 31:17). Ceasing from work and resting, are not the same thing – that is why the text includes two expressions. The question is, what sort of rest is implied by the word, va-yinafash?

Va-yinafash has a core meaning, which is connected with the word, nefesh. Nefesh is often translated as ‘soul’, but in in mental universe of the Torah, a distinction is not made between body and soul. Nefesh means ‘being’: the essential life element in each one of us. But what has this got to do with rest on Shabbat? To answer this question, we have to go back to Genesis – to the second account of the creation of the first human being. We read there (Gen. 2:7): ‘The Eternal God formed the human – ha-adam – out of the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life – nishmat chayyim – and the human became a living being – nefesh chayyah.’ Each one of us is a ‘living being’. Shabbat is the sacred moment in time when we stop to take a breath and re-charge ourselves – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Making Shabbat is about re-making ourselves. If we think about the Sabbath in these terms, Shabbat ceases to be about observance of a set of practical rules external to us; it emerges from us.

But this is not the end of the matter. There is another issue, which the passage on Shabbat reiterates again and again. Shabbat, as part of creation is universal; it is fundamental to the life of all, as the Sabbath commandment testifies (Exodus 20:8ff. and Deuteronomy 5:12ff.). Yet, we are Jews and when we make Shabbat and re-make ourselves through Shabbat, we do so as Jews. The text speaks about Shabbat as ‘a perpetual covenant, an eternal sign between Me and the children of Israel forever’ (Ex. 31:16-17). It is in the context of this covenant, this pact, this sign, that we can best make our own sense of the passages which threaten the death penalty to those who work on Shabbat. In rejecting this punishment, there is yet a grain of meaning, which remains for us to examine. It emerges most clearly in the phrase: ‘… whoever does any work on Shabbat, that being – nefesh – will be cut off from the midst of their people’ (31:15).

In the Torah, covenants are not made, they are cut.  And so, according to the Torah, the individual who desecrates the Sabbath has cut themselves off from the community. That’s the p’shat – the plain meaning. But there is a remez – a hint in the text of something else. The word nefesh is a noun. The root, Nun Pei Shin from which it is derived, is only used very rarely in the Torah in a verbal sense. And yet, the passage ends with a verbal use of the root: va-yinafash. Similarly, in the only other verbal use of the root Nun Pei Shin in the Torah, at Exodus 23:12, we read; ‘six days surely do you work, but on the seventh day of seats from Labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your servant and the stranger v’yinafeish – may be, literally, re-beinged.’ Again: ‘… on the seventh day, [God] shavat – ceased from work – va-yinafash – and was, re-beinged.

So, we are back with the universal resonances of work and rest. Perhaps the Torah is hinting in the passage about Shabbat in this week’s parashah, that the person who works on Shabbat deprives themselves, their nefesh – their being – of the opportunity for physical and spiritual renewal which resting from work engenders. The text speaks of of external punishment, but another way of reading it is in terms of what we do to ourselves, when we do not cease from our daily round, inhabit sacred time for a day and refresh ourselves. Indeed, in Hebrew, the verbal form of ‘will be cut off ‘ – v’nichr’tah – can be read, either, as a passive construction, or reflexively – that is: ‘… whoever does any work on Shabbat, that being – nefeshwill cut themselves off from the midst of their people’ (31:15).

By not giving our nefesh, the very essence of what makes each one of us who we are, the opportunity for refreshment and renewal, by not restoring and reconnecting with our selves, the individual is thereby unable to reach out and connect with others. As we read in the Leviticus chapter 19 (:18): V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we do not love ourselves, how can we love our neighbour? Martin Buber spoke of the essential relationship between Ich and Du – I and You.[2] If I do not inhabit myself fully as ‘I’, how can I relate to you, as ‘You’?

There are lots of good reasons why Jews today find it difficult to take time out – not least the need to earn a living in a world when jobs have become increasingly scarce and more demanding. From a Liberal Jewish perspective, there is no question of judging those who do not have the opportunity to ‘keep’ and ‘make’ Shabbat. The challenge for all of us is to take responsibility for the quality of our lives as living beings, and create a regular space for ourselves for physical and spiritual renewal. The language of the passage about Shabbat in today’s portion may be as alien to us as the description of the Tabernacle and its sacred service, but nevertheless it contains a message for us as Liberal Jews. Ultimately, Torah, Shabbat, Judaism – these are not timeless, immutable entities, but rather what we choose, day by day, to make of them.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

[1] The Sabbath was first published in 1951

[2] Ich und Du – first published in 1923. First English translation: 1937