27th Elul : coming back to where we started

27th Elul

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with

new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The Jewish year is about continuing our journeying and returning. The very word for year – Shanah – is a Hebrew root that means both to repeat and to change. Our festival prayer book is called a machzor, from the root meaning to return – or to be part of a cycle. The festivals come around each year, inexorably reminding us of how life has and has not changed since the previous iteration, what we have and have not done, who is no longer with us, how we have been impacted by the days and months we have just lived through.

But the cycle is not circular, rather it is spiral. The festivals come and go but each time we are in a slightly different place, a slightly different time, we have moved on in our journey. We cannot bring back past times or lost opportunities, we can only acknowledge the loss and resolve to use the coming time rather better. Yet Judaism connects us to time – both times past and times present. When we celebrate a festival we are sharing the experiences of generations before us as well as those celebrating across the world. Lighting shabbat candles and ushering in the 25 hours of peace is said to give us a taste of the World to Come. Much of what we do in our ritual is about remembering – bringing forth the stories of our past and embedding them in our present.

As we spiral through time we look back at our history, bringing our stories and our memories with us, and we look forward to a future we hope to be part of shaping for the better. And as the new moon of Tishri will be seen in the sky we can see both past and future in its light.

We journey and we return. We bring some of our memories with us – and some of the memories of our people that we have learned to embody. And we leave behind some of the things we need to leave behind, facing a future with the resolve to do differently.

We go away and we come back. We see the places we came from in a different perspective, with different understanding, and we see the places we can go towards differently too. As Pratchett so wisely remarked, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving”.

Parashat Vayakhel: we create and live in holy time

The opening three verses of Vayakhel deals with the observance of Shabbat: “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: these are the things which God has commanded that you do. Six days shall you labour, and the seventh day shall be holy, a Sabbath unto the Eternal; whoever does work on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day.  Rashi reminds us that the verse order, where the law of Shabbat precedes the laws about the building of the Mishkan, teaches that even the building of the Sanctuary is less important than observing Shabbat.  The Sabbath, the day for remembering God’s creation, for resting from work, is so important that even the holy work of building this place must stop for it.

 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of Shabbat as being ‘a palace in time’. He sees the entwining of the biblical texts on Shabbat and the Mishkan, and understands that sacralising time is far more important than sanctifying space. The pattern of six days of work which are followed by the Shabbat when all labour should be avoided, is a deliberate resonance with the Creation of the world in Genesis. Shabbat is the culmination of the Creation, a weekly prompt to us of our purpose in the world.  Heschel reminds us that “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

The sanctification of time rather than place is the real innovation in the worship of the incorporeal and transcendent God. Along with its lack of physical dimension, time is universal, it belongs to everyone. Unlike buildings or land, no one can claim that the day belongs to them alone, no one can claim ownership of time. And the sanctification of time does something else. As Heschel wrote Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time... There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Each of us is able to control how we use our own time, each of us has the same resource measured in minutes, hours, days, weeks, seasons. If we choose to pay attention to how we use our time in this world, if we deliberately use our time to work for the purpose of making our world a more sacred place, then we will have understood the message in Vayakhel.  

Heschel reminds us that the verb ‘kadesh’ meaning to sanctify or to separate out for a distinct purpose is first used at the end of the story of Creation, when God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy”, a statement we recite at kiddush. There is no other reference to anything else in creation being made holy. Not the world, not people, not any special place. At the beginning of our history holiness was to be found in time. We became a holy people much much later, at the theophany at Sinai. And places only became holy with the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary whose completion we read about this week.

 Every hour we have is unique, filled with possibility, endlessly precious, and potentially holy. Once we have sacred buildings it is easy to forget that actually we live in sacred time. But we do; and ultimately each of us uses our own time, making choices about how we spend it, how we allow its use to impact upon us.

 Time is more sacred than space. And all of us live in  time that is limited yet infinitely possible.  As we come towards the end of the book of Exodus, leave behind the stories that begin in slavery and move into the wealth of possibilities that is the desert experience, the constraints of place need no longer oppress us – we inhabit holy time.

vayakhel pekudei

In this week’s Parasha we find the prohibition against kindling a fire on Shabbat, otherwise known as Hav’arah.  The Torah says “Lo teva’aru eish b’chol mosh’voteichem b’yom ha’Shabbat,” “Do not light a fire in any of your dwelling places, on the day of Shabbat.” Shabbat without the use of heating and lighting would be a pretty miserable experience- but luckily the Rabbis had an answer: Since the Torah does not say, “Lo Tihiyeh,” “Do not have a fire,” the halacha is that it is permissible to have a pre-existing fire on Shabbat. 

Indeed, in response to the Karaites, the scriptural literalists of their day, the rabbinic tradition even had a bracha for the Shabbat lights– “Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu le’hadlik ner shel Shabbat – Blessed be You our Eternal God, sovereign of the universe, who sanctifies us through doing mitzvot and who commands us to light the lights of Shabbat.” Even further, the Sages instituted the rule that people should eat hot food every Shabbat – hence the tradition of cholent or adafina!

But what else do we learn from this strange story of what might be called Rabbinic counter intuitive interpretation?

Firstly there is a real issue about lighting fire on Shabbat – but why? Why is it singled out in this way? Shabbat is the way we celebrate Creation, imitating the work of God by taking control of our own time.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the twin symbols around the Mishkan demonstrating the presence of God: – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Together the symbols are said to comprise the heavens – the Hebrew word ‘shamayim’ (heavens) is said by some to be an amalgam of the two words eish (fire) and mayim (water) – eternal opposites which in the heavens are able to live peacefully with each other.  So to create fire on Shabbat may be seen as encroaching too closely onto the work of God.

Or maybe it is seen as simply too dangerous, for fire, while it can bring warmth and a sense of security as one sits around it, is also potentially a symbol of destruction  and fear, the fires of Gehinnom come to mind.

So to create fire on Shabbat, without being able to carry water, might be dangerous in all sorts of ways Our passion for closeness to the divine as symbolised by fire is important, but just as important is its twin symbolised by water – Life, in its many and varied expressions

Rabbinic tradition does not think that lighting a fire on Shabbat is simply a practical hazard but that it is in some way a metaphor we need to take care about.

Possibly it is a metaphor for an inappropriate passionate union with God, or as the seventeenth century Rabbi Isaac Horowitz of Prague (the Shlah) writes: “This alludes to the fires of machloket / to disputes and ka’as / to anger.  A person must always be careful not to kindle these fires, but especially so on Shabbat.  On Shabbat, the “fires” of Gehinnom do not burn, but one who gets angry on Shabbat or causes machloket causes them to be rekindled, God forbid.  (Shnei Luchot Ha’berit: Torah Shebichtav).

He sees fire as a symbol for inappropriate passion – in this case anger towards others. By allowing ourselves to become angry on Shabbat we will destroy the essential meaning of Shabbat – or rest and recuperation and renewal. He brings to his argument also the folk tradition that those souls in Gehinnom get Shabbat off from their punishments, and that we would punish them even further by our actions.  It is a nice gloss, and certainly a teaching worth pursuing – by not allowing ourselves the luxury of becoming angry on Shabbat, we can teach ourselves self control and even learn to see our lives and its irritations in perspective.

The Rabbinic decision to take this verse and use it to not only ensure that there would be fire in the homes of the Jews, but that this would be sanctified is extraordinarily creative. It seems to have been the critical point between the Rabbinic Pharisaic tradition of Oral Torah, and the exacting tradition of the Saduceeas and Karaities that Torah must be understood only in a literal way, without the sophistication and the explication of the Oral Torah. In lighting Shabbat candles and blessing them, we are aligning ourselves with a tradition of thoughtfulness, and creative adaptiveness designed to meet the needs of the people. Shining a light into Shabbat in a contained and careful way addresses the issues of what fire might mean – too much passion towards God or else anger against others.

Maimonides, in his compilation of Jewish Law the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shabbat  5:1), explains the argument regarding starting a fire on Shabbat thus – “this law refers to the person who lights a fire on Shabbat when he needs the ash” – in other words, the action is only forbidden if it can be completed, if there is a final and physical product.
            The end product of our lighting Shabbat candles is real – a sense of peacefulness and connectedness to tradition. Creating a light in this way as Shabbat comes in (traditionally the candles are lit 18 minutes before Shabbat so as to be burning well before the onset of the new day) means that we create what Isaiah calls oneg Shabbat – the delight of the Sabbath day, something that surely mirrors the events of creation.

But while the end product of lighting Shabbat candles is a peacefulness that is almost tangible, rather than an act of creation in itself, the idea that the rabbis had that  for the action to be complete there had to have a product is one that continues to intrigue me.

The soul is described sometimes as a light for God, a candle that flickers sometimes more strongly, other times less so. But it is not enough to be a flickering light, we should aim to be beacons of light in the world which provide more than good intentions or spiritual yearning – there must be an end product – an action that creates a lasting effect.