How do we look at the world? Do we view it as being old or new?
This question is at the heart of Jewish philosophy and specifically what Shabbat is all about. For thousands of years secular philosophy claimed there was no such thing as Creation and that the world has always existed. But the Torah teaches us that G-d created the world from nothing, that there was a distinct point in time prior to which there was nothing and after which G-d created the whole universe. With the advent of the Big Bang Theory, secular philosophy slowly began catching up with the Torah’s perspective, as science finally accepted what Judaism had been teaching all along.
Although that was certainly a breakthrough, Jewish philosophy takes it even further: not only was there a point in time at which G-d began Creation from nothing, but He constantly creates the world anew; as we say in our daily morning prayers, Hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, “G-d, in His goodness, renews Creation every day.” The world is not old and Creation is not just a distant memory. G-d did not simply put systems in place and leave the world to its own devices. Rather, He renews it every day.
How is this idea manifest in our experience of Shabbat?
Living with a consciousness of Creation
Shabbat is a day dedicated to reaffirming our belief that G-d created the world. But in contrast to the festivals, which are celebrated once a year, Shabbat is celebrated every week. Every festival celebrates an event in history: Shavuot celebrates the anniversary of G-d giving us the Torah; Succot commemorates how G-d looked after us in the desert and surrounded us with the Clouds of Glory; and on Pesach we remember the exodus from Egypt. Shabbat, which commemorates Creation, is celebrated once a week. Why didn’t G-d make a once-a-year festival to celebrate Creation? Why is it important to remember Creation every single week?
Furthermore, not only is Shabbat celebrated on a weekly basis, but the week is structured around the creation of the world; G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and we too live in this weekly cycle, which means we are living with a consciousness of Creation all the time. It says in the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” which, as we have mentioned previously, refers not only to the mitzvah of saying kiddush on Friday night but also to the mitzvah of remembering Shabbat every day of the week; as the Ramban points out, in Hebrew the days of the week do not have names but are called by their ordinal numbers because with each day we are counting from Shabbat and towards Shabbat. Thus there is a mitzvah to remember Shabbat not only once a week but in fact every day.
Why must we live with such consciousness of Creation?
This question goes back to our opening question – whether we view the nature of the world as old or new, status quo or fresh, static or dynamic. Living with such consciousness of Creation every single day makes us realise that Creation is not some ancient event but something current and alive because G-d constantly re-creates the world. And not only does He re-create the world all the time, He does so on an individual basis. The Mishnah says that a person is obligated to say bishvili nivra ha’olam, “the world is created for me.” We have to have a sense that G-d created the world not just for humankind in general but for each one of us, as individuals.
The world is created for me
On a global level, we know the world is created anew all the time. But we must also know that the world is re-created bishvili, “for me”; G-d renews the world for each and every one of us. To explain this, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, brings the miracles in Egypt, which the Jews experienced on a personal basis. The theme of personalised miracles runs throughout the ten plagues, which affected only the Egyptians and not the Jews. Each plague was carefully targeted, hitting only those it was meant to hit and not others. For example, take the plague of blood: we would think that in the Jewish neighbourhoods there was water, and in the Egyptian neighbourhoods all water turned to blood – and this is indeed how it was. However, according to the oral tradition, the plague was even more precise than that: if an Egyptian and a Jew were sitting at a table with a jug of water, when the Egyptian would pour from the jug it would turn into blood, and when the Jew poured from the same jug it was water.
Says the Alter of Slabodka, we see from this that G-d is constantly re-creating the world, changing the laws of nature and adapting them – not just generally but individually. And just as G-d re-created the world for us as individuals in Egypt, so too does He re-create the world for us every day in our own personal lives. The open miracles we experienced in Egypt were awe-inspiring, but the laws of nature are just as miraculous; it is only because the miracles of nature are continuously recurring that we do not recognise them as such.
The Alter of Slabodka gives another example: the plague of darkness. As we know, there was light in the Jewish homes and darkness in the Egyptian homes. But according to the Midrash, the distinction was even more precise. The darkness was so thick they actually couldn’t move, yet the Jews were able to walk around freely in the Egyptian homes. They were not affected by the darkness at all and were able to see everything. This is how, on their way out of Egypt, they were able to ask the Egyptians for gold and silver as reparations for all their years of slave labour; when the Egyptians said they didn’t have anything, the Jews said they had seen everything and knew exactly where it was. Throughout the plagues we see that the miracles were done on an individual basis. Two people standing right next to each other experienced two completely different realities. This, says the Alter of Slabodka, shows us that when G-d renews Creation He does so on an individual basis.
One of the blessings we say in the morning is Roka ha’aretz al hamayim, thanking G-d Who “spreads the earth over the water.” If you look at planet Earth from space, you see mostly water; indeed, the planet is two-thirds water. What stops the water from washing over the continents? This is truly a miracle of G-d. The Alter of Slabodka points out that the language of the blessing is roka, which is in the present tense. Hashem is constantly holding back the water so that we can walk on dry land. Each morning we thank Hashem for creating the dry land for us to walk on – bishvili nivra ha’olam, “the world was created for me.” Every day we experience a miracle comparable to the splitting of the sea, when the Jews walked on dry land; it is indeed a miracle that the ocean stays where it is.
As we know, at the splitting of the sea, G-d instructed Moses to stretch out his staff in order to perform the miracle. When the Jews had gone safely to the other side and the sea had to return to its former position, again G-d said to Moses “stretch out your staff.” Rav Mordechai Gifter asks, why did Moses have to stretch out his staff again as if to perform another miracle? Surely all he had to do was “withdraw” the first miracle and the sea would go back to where it was. Rav Gifter answers that there is actually no difference between the first action and the second – they are both miraculous. Whether the sea is split or the waters are back where they belong is miraculous because why should the sea stay where it is in the first place? It’s really all a miracle.
We see from this that the world is not a status quo; it is being re-created and renewed all the time, not only in general but individually as well. G-d’s attention to individual details is evident in every facet of life. For example, the Alter quotes from the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, which says that if a fast day has been declared because there has been no rain, there is a special prayer of thanksgiving said after the rain comes, in which we thank Hashem al kol tipa vetipa shehoradeta lanu, “for every drop that You brought down for us.” We thank Hashem for every drop of rainwater, because each drop is a miracle. In fact, the Gemara compares the rain to the revival of the dead – hence both are mentioned in the same blessing in the Amidah. We would think that the revival of the dead is a much more dramatic and miraculous event; but in fact the rain coming down and nourishing the ground so that plants can grow is just as miraculous.
The Alter points out that this idea is encapsulated in Vechol Ma’aminim, the special song we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which says, hakol yachol vekolelam yachad, G-d “can do anything and holds it all together.” G-d does two kinds of miracles: He renews everything individually but He also holds everything together.
This enables us to look at the world with new eyes. When we look at the world, we are not looking at something old and static which has always been this way; rather we are looking at something which was created today – and not just created today but created for each of us individually; bishvili nivra ha’olam. As we go through life we have to realise that G-d is creating our own little world for us on an individual basis and that He is refreshing and renewing it all the time.
This is why Shabbat is the focal point of the week and why G-d did not designate a once-a-year holiday to celebrate Creation. G-d wants us to live in a seven-day cycle, with the newness and freshness of the world, because this enables us to live with a renewed sense of inspiration. For us, as Jews, Creation is not some distant memory but something we live with every moment of the day. G-d wants us to realise that life is a gift; as our sages teach us, we thank Hashem al kol neshima veneshima, “for every breath.” Every breath is a gift from Hashem, as is every step we take on dry land. This awareness of everything around us should open our eyes and heighten our sensitivity so that we take nothing for granted, and are inspired to view the world not as something static but as something alive and dynamic. Indeed, every day is fresh blessing from G-d.