Fresh Beginnings (Edited Transcript)
Having just celebrated the completion of the reading of the Torah at Simchat Torah, we now start again with Parshat Bereishit. It’s always wonderful to have new beginnings and fresh starts. Bereishit of course deals with the creation of the world.
There is one aspect of the Genesis narrative that we don’t often think of as being part of creation, even though it most certainly is – and that is Shabbos.
Shabbos is a central aspect of Judaism, and, in fact, it goes right back to the birth of the world. We recite the famous passage from Bereishit during Kiddush on Friday night: Vayechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tezva’am, “And the heaven and the earth were completed and all of their host.”… Vayechal elohim bayom hashvi’i melachto asher asah, “And G-d completed on the seventh day his work which he had done.”… Vayishbot bayom hashvi’i mikol melachto asher asah, “And He ceased on the seventh day from all of his work that he had done.”… Vayevarech elohim et yom hashvi’i vayekadesh oto, “And G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”
Shabbos as a creation From this description of the origins of Shabbos, we see it is different from all of the other mitzvahs in the Torah. Indeed, we see that it is woven into the very fabric of creation. The same way G-d created light and humankind and the sun and the moon and animals, He created Shabbos. And that’s why the verse says Vayechal elohim bayom hashvi’i , “and G-d completed His work on the seventh day.”
Rashi asks the obvious question: surely G-d completed the work on the sixth day, and rested on the seventh? What does it mean that G-d completed the work on the seventh day? He answers that Shabbos itself is a creation. Citing the Midrash, he explains that the world was not yet completed by the sixth day because it was lacking Shabbos. The Midrash provides an analogy: a king builds a beautiful chupah – a wedding canopy – and everything is waiting for the kalah, the bride, to enter the picture. So, too, after the world was created, the world stood waiting for Shabbos – for the concept of menucha, rest – to be born. In other words, Shabbos is an integral part of existence itself.
Prominence We see the prominence of Shabbos throughout our history. For example, when the Jews left Egypt, before we got to Mount Sinai, we were given a few mitzvahs. One of them was Shabbos (when the manna fell from heaven, G-d commanded the Jewish people not to collect the manna on Shabbos, and provided a double portion on Friday).
We see also the prominence of Shabbos in its inclusion in the Ten Commandments – as one of those few commandments announced at Mount Sinai, where most of the mitzvahs of the Torah were transmitted from G-d to Moses at a later stage and then relayed to the people. And the language of the mitzvah of Shabbos is instructive: Zachor et yom haShabbat L’kadsho, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the word zachor, remember, is referring to something that has already been created. This wasn’t a new mitzvah that hadn’t existed before. Shabbos is part of the very essence of the created world.
This, incidentally, is also the origin of the mitzvah of Kiddush. Zachor is related to the Hebrew word, L’hazkir, “to mention”. One should verbally declare the holiness of Shabbat – which is what we do when we recite Kiddush every Friday night.
The fact that the holiness of Shabbat is embedded in creation itself distinguishes it from, for example, the festivals. Having just been celebrating all of the chagim, you will recall that the blessing dealing with each Yom Tov concludes (when the festival falls over Shabbat): “Blessed are you, Hashem, who sanctifies the Shabbat, the Jewish people and the festivals.”
Why that specific order? The Gemora in Beitza explains that it’s because G-d sanctified Shabbat, and then he sanctified the Jewish people, and it is we, the Jewish people, who then sanctified the festivals. Succot occurs on the 15th day of Tishrei. There can be no Succot if there is no month of Tishrei. Similarly, there can be no Pesach if there is no month of Nissan. And the calendar – specifically the beginning of each month (Rosh Chodesh) – is established by the Jewish people, and then formalised through the Sanhedrin (the Sanhedrin sanctified each month based on witnesses who testified that they’d seen the new moon). This same calendar remains in effect today.
So the sanctity of the calendar and, hence, the sanctity of the festivals, depends on the Jewish people. Shabbat is not like that. Its sanctity emanates directly from G-d from the very beginning of creation. This is why Shabbat is mentioned before the Jewish people and the festivals.
Not just the absence of work To really understand the importance and the power of Shabbos, let’s return to our Midrash which compares the pre-Shabbat world on the eve of the seventh day of creation to a king who had created a chupah, with everything just waiting for the bride. The analogy demonstrates vividly that Shabbos isn’t just a day of rest, a day of non-activity. It actually represents something positive. When the bride enters the chupah, she becomes the life and soul of that chupah. Shabbos is the life and soul of the world in much the same way. It’s not just the absence of work, a day on which people simply do nothing. Shabbos brings a positive, powerful energy into the world.
So what is this positive and powerful energy associated with Shabbos? First and foremost, it’s a day of faith and belief. In the Ten Commandments, we read:
“Remember the day of Shabbat, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Shabbat to Hashem your G-d, in it you shall not do any manner of work…for in six days Hashem made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore Hashem blessed the day of Shabbat, and sanctified it.”
We see that Shabbat is in part a testimony to the fact that G-d created the world. When we recite your Kiddush on Friday night, this is exactly what we are doing. We begin: Vayechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tezva’am. Vayechal elohim bayom hashvi’i melachto asher asah (“And the heaven and the earth were completed and all of their host. And G-d completed on the seventh day his work which he had done.”). We are testifying to the fact that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
In Judaism, faith and belief in G-d is everything. Crucially, we don’t just believe that G-d exists – we believe that He created the world. In Judaism belief is never just an academic exercise, a purely philosophical pursuit that stays stuck in books. We live with our beliefs and we look at the world – and at our personal worlds – through the perspective of these beliefs all the time. And so for us, the divine origin of all of existence is the heart and soul of the way we look at the world. It is the essence of who we are.
Constant newness If you think about it, we constantly renew our awareness of this idea; we celebrate the creation of the world every single week. As Jews, we don’t allow our philosophical precepts to become dry, old, dusty, academic, but ensure they live and breathe as part of the way that we think and feel – and we live and breach our history with a similar sense of freshness and relevance and immediacy. You could argue the creation of the world is too distant an event – the most distant of all events – to have any meaning in our lives. And, yet, it’s something we live with all the time.
And, in fact, not just every Friday night. There is a mitzvah to remember Shabbos during the week, too. The days themselves are named in relation to their proximity to Shabbos. “Yom Rishon” (Sunday) literally means the “first day” after Shabbos. “Yom Sheini” (Monday) is the “second day” after Shabbos. And so on, as we head towards Yom Shabbat – from Shabbos to Shabbos. We see that Shabbos defines the atmosphere of the week; that the days of the week do not have names – they have numbers, because their identity is submerged with Shabbat. So, in a sense, the awareness that G-d created the world lives with us throughout the week.
This changes the way that we look at the world. As we say every morning in Shachrit: Mechadesh BTuvo Bchol Yom Tamid Maaseh VeReishit – G-d “renews the works of creation in His goodness, at every moment of the day, always.” We never look at the world and life as stale and old and just there. We never take them for granted. By looking at the world around us with an awareness that G-d created it and that He is constantly recreating it, and by explicitly testifying to this fact every week when we say Kiddush, we are living in a state of profound freshness and newness ourselves, and connecting our lives to G-d.
The Sefer HaChinuch – a classic work that goes into the reasons for the mitzvahs – says that Shabbos is a time to be free from all of our business and all of our work in order to give honour to the day, and in order to instil in our souls the belief in what he calls “Chiddush HaOlam” – literally “the newness of the world”. On Shabbos, we are cognisant of the fact that the world is new and fresh, and that G-d created it. We reject what Aristotle and philosophers throughout the ages have maintained – that the world has always simply existed, and there was never a beginning point or a Creator. We believe that there is a Creator and the world is new, and the Sefer HaChinuch calls this belief “the rope that pulls together all of the foundation principles that Judaism stands on.”
Living with meaning and purpose Believing that G-d created the world and living with that belief is also to live with the belief that life has a purpose and that our lives have meaning and that there is a reason why we are here. You see if you believe in random evolution and you believe the world just happened to come into existence by some quirk of fate, then human life is purposeless and meaningless because it was never designed. It wasn’t meant to be, it’s just an accident. Believing that G-d created the world, on the other hand, is recognising that there is purpose to creation. The fact that there is this perfect physical world with all of its countless intricate details and indescribable beauty testifies to this purpose.
At the heart of Judaism is the idea that life has meaning, and that we were created by G-d for a supreme and holy purpose in this world – and that we have to live with that sense of meaning and purpose. The Torah in its entirety is about what that purpose is and how we can fulfill it. All of Judaism is about the passionate belief that we have a mission in this world that we should dedicate our limited timespan on this earth to fulfilling; that what we do with our life is important.
And so when we say that Shabbos is the foundation principle of our faith and our belief, what we are really talking about is the power and energy of the belief that G-d is a Supreme Being – that He created the world, and that He created it with a purpose. And when we live with these beliefs, they change the way that we look at everything.
So Shabbos is not just an empty day of rest, it’s a day of power. It’s the bride arriving at the chupah who transforms everything. It’s the day that allows us to we reconnect with ourselves and experience human existence from a completely fresh perspective.