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Shabbos Part X : Dynamic Living (Edited Transcript)

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This is part ten in a series of discussions on Shabbat

The message of Shabbat is that not only did G-d create the world, but He refreshes it all the time. This is why He put us into a weekly cycle following the cycle of Creation; it is a constant reminder to us that He refreshes the world and that we are enjoined to live with freshness and to find renewed inspiration. We live in a world which is constantly being re-created; as we say in our daily davening, “G-d in His goodness renews the world every single day.” Not only is the world renewed on a macro level, but the human body is renewed on a micro level as well: cells die and are constantly replaced. We know this, even without getting into complex science on a cellular level: a newborn baby grows and grows and eventually reaches adulthood, and then the body starts the process of deterioration as it ages. Our bodies are dynamic, changing all the time. G-d refreshes and renews the body just as He renews the world.

G-d re-creates us not only on a physical level, but on an intellectual and spiritual level as well. The Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, explains that we see this with regard to human memory: when we wake up in the morning, we don’t start our learning process from scratch. A Torah scholar, who has learned Gemara and Mishnah, does not wake up the next morning having forgotten all his learning and having to start learning the aleph beis. We begin every day with what we already know from the day before. Memory is cumulative, and G-d renews it every day. The brain contains so much information, and gets refreshed all the time. We realise the miracle if, G-d forbid, someone is afflicted with amnesia or some kind of brain damage, memories are lost. Every day we wake up to a new world, in a new body, with a new mind and a new soul.

For us, belief that G-d created the world is not just a theoretical, philosophical concept, but something we live with every day. The Alter of Slabodka gleans an important lesson from this, and that is that if G-d takes the trouble to re-create the world and make it new all the time, then we too have to live our lives with a newness and freshness, every single day. G-d is teaching us by example: we must not get stuck and leave things status quo. G-d didn’t want us to live in a world that is stuck and stale. He didn’t want us to live in a world that was static, and so He renews it all the time. He could have created the world and left it to its systems, but He didn’t. By remaking the world fresh and new, He is challenging us to live with newness and not take anything for granted, to keep our eyes open and view the world from a fresh and inspired perspective.

Practically, how do we do this?

Living with renewal

As an example of this approach, the Alter of Slabodka quotes the Gemara, which says that a person’s evil inclination constantly renews its strategies. In other words, we live with temptation all the time. However what tempted us five or ten years ago is not necessarily what tempts us today. We might think we have overcome certain temptations, and perhaps we have, but there are always new ones to grapple with. Life is dynamic and we must never be complacent about what we have achieved nor think that our job is done; as the Mishnah in chapter two of Pirkei Avot says, Al ta’amin be’atzmecha ad yom mot’cha, “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death,” because we cannot know whether we will be able to stand up to the challenges of tomorrow. The world is constantly changing and we must confront new challenges all the time.

This applies in every endeavour in life. For example, just because a certain business model has worked in the past does not necessarily mean it’s going to work in the future. So too in our service of G-d: Just because something has worked in the past, does not mean it’s going to work in the future. We must not allow our Judaism to become stale. We must not get caught in a rut nor allow our understanding of the Torah and mitzvot to remain stuck on a primary school level. It has to be alive, dynamic and constantly growing.  

Viewing the world with fresh eyes

This also applies to the way we view the world. The Gemara in Tractate Chagiga, page 16a, lists three things that can dim one’s eyes if one does not look at them properly: a rainbow, a Nasi (the head of the Sanhedrin), and the Kohanim when they bless the people. What is the significance of these three and why does looking at them improperly cause one’s eyes to become dim?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that these three things refer to situations where one should see and feel the presence of G-d, and if a person looks at these things and does not see G-d, his eyes dim. He says further that this is what the Rambam is referring to when he discusses the mitzvah to believe in G-d. The Rambam uses two different terms: leha’amin, “to believe,” and leidah, “to know.” Rav Soloveitchik says that “to know” there is a G-d means taking belief beyond the intellectual and philosophical, and applying it in practical terms. Belief is in the realm of the philosophical; knowledge refers to living with it every single day.

In the rainbow one can see the magnificence of G-d in the physical world. We have to be able to look at G-d’s awesome Creation and see its beauty and perfection. Similarly, when one sees a Nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin who is a great Torah scholar, one sees the awesome intellectual and spiritual power that G-d has created and bestowed upon man. We should be inspired by the greatness of the human mind. And when the Kohanim bless the people, we feel the presence of G-d in another way. We know that the Kohanim are commanded levarech et amo Yisrael be’ahava, “to bless the people with love.” Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is why when the Kohanim recite the blessing prior to Birkat Kohanim, their hands are clenched and as they turn around to face the people and bless them, they open up their hands. A clenched fist symbolises selfishness while an open hand symbolises love. When we see this love, we should feel the presence of G-d. Rav Soloveitchik quotes Rabbeinu Bechayey, who says that when one sees the love between a mother and her child, one sees the presence of G-d.

Rav Soloveitchik says that “to know” G-d is to live with an acute awareness of all the miracles around us. Knowing G-d means viewing the world with fresh eyes. The fact that G-d refreshes the world is a challenge to us to be dynamic and innovative, and to face daily challenges with renewed inspiration.

Breaking the habit, finding inspiration

One of the biggest challenges of life is that we are creatures of habit, and habit can spoil inspiration. Yet we must not allow routine to dampen our sense of renewal and freshness. This applies to the way we relate to our spouse; we must not allow our marriages to get stuck where they were ten years ago. It applies to the way we relate to our children. It applies to the way we pray to G-d; though we say the same words three times a day, we must say them with a renewed sense of inspiration and devotion. When we read the weekly parsha, our understanding of it should not be the same as it was last year. On the surface, things may appear the same; but we have to realise that they are new and dynamic, in the same way that the world looks the same yet it is constantly being renewed. There is no status quo; we must change and grow all the time.

Shabbat is about finding chiddush and inspiration. We were put in the cycle of Creation so that we can find newness and freshness and never get bored or stagnate. This is why Shabbat is linked not only to the creation of the world, but also to the exodus from Egypt. The liberation from Egypt showed us that the laws of nature can be turned around. Laws which we thought were so fixed – that slaves in Egypt never go free and that waters don’t split – proved changeable. On Shabbat we remember not only the creation of the world but also the liberation from Egypt because this linking of Creation with the Exodus teaches us that the world is not static but new and dynamic. Just as the world changes, so too we are capable of change, and we need to rise to the challenge of living our lives in a fresh and inspired way.

Our task is to live with a constant sense of chiddush, newness, in every dimension of our lives. This newness is not found externally but internally. Sometimes we are tempted to think that change and renewal require external makeovers and we seek out new forms of excitement and transformation. Yet real renewal comes from internal change and inspiration, not external. On Shabbat we are able to find newness, excitement and inspiration, by stopping all of the so-called productivity of the week and focusing inward. We are able to reconnect with ourselves, our loved ones and with G-d, and in so doing find the chiddush in life. This is one of the mandates of Judaism – to see the world not as static but as dynamic.

Posted on 13 December 2012 in Text, Transcript

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