Shabbat Part XVI: Shabbat – The Purpose Of The World (Edited Transcript)
This is part sixteen in a series of discussions on Shabbat.
Previously we have discussed how, as the Gemara says, the six days of Creation correspond to the six thousand years of history, with the seventh day – Shabbat – corresponding to the seventh millennium, the Shabbat of all time.
In his commentary on Genesis, the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, quotes the verse from Psalms which says, Ki elef shanim b’eynecha k’yom etmol, “A thousand years in Your eyes [Hashem] is like one day that has passed,” and explains how each of the six days of Creation parallels a millennium in history.
The first day of Creation corresponds to the first thousand years of history. According to our tradition, Adam lived for 930 years, his life spanning most of the first millennium. Adam and Eve were close to G-d, as they were created by Him exclusively. The Gemara says that every child is the product of a partnership between the father, the mother and G-d, but Adam and Eve were made solely by G-d, not in partnership. They also heard G-d speak to them directly. Because of this closeness, they brought a light into the world, even though they had sinned. Thus, the light created on the first day of Creation parallels the first millennium of history, which was illuminated by the existence of Adam and Eve.
On the second day of Creation, the waters were created and the upper waters were separated from the lower waters. This corresponds to the flood of Noach, which took place during the second millennium.
On the third day of Creation, dry land appeared, and plants, trees and fruit started to grow. This corresponds to the beginning of Avraham’s life of teaching Torah. Avraham was born in the year 1948, one thousand nine hundred and forty-eight years from the creation of Adam and Eve. At the turn of the “second day” – meaning, the year 2001, which is the beginning of the third millennium – Avraham was fifty-two years old. It was at this age that he began reaching out to people and spreading the Torah’s principles. Thus, the Torah came into the world for the first time during the third millennium, beginning with Avraham’s teaching of the Torah and culminating with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. During the third millennium the world started to flourish and bear fruit, so to speak. Until the Torah was given, the world was just water, chaos and darkness. Even though there was the special light of Adam and Eve, the real flourishing of the world began only when Avraham brought Torah into the world.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz points out that even though Adam was a very righteous man, as was Noach, their lifetimes were still defined by chaos and void. According to the Gemara the first two thousand years of history are called “chaos”. Adam and Noach were righteous individuals but they did not change anything in the world. Avraham, however, brought spiritual fruit and trees to the world, by spreading the light of Torah.
The fourth day of Creation corresponds to the fourth millennium. On the fourth day, the sun and the moon were created. The Ramban says the sun and the moon parallel the First and Second Temple, respectively – both having stood during the fourth millennium. The First Temple was grand, with open miracles. This parallels the sun. The Second Temple was a paler reflection of the First Temple, in terms of its holiness and grandeur; the daily miracles that happened in the First Temple did not occur in the Second, and so it parallels the moon.
The fifth day of creation corresponds to the fifth millennium, which began after the destruction of the Second Temple and was characterised by terrible persecution, exile and darkness. On the fifth day, the animals of the sea and the animals of flight were created. This parallels the time following the destruction of the Second Temple, when animalism began to take hold in the world.
This dark period in Jewish history – and in the world at large – continued into the sixth day, when the land animals were created. Looking back on the events of the sixth millennium – in other words, from the Jewish year 5001 (the year 1240 C.E.) onward, the world has seen many beastly acts of human beings, especially over the last few hundred years; often it is the Jewish people which bears the brunt of this animalism. But within the sixth day – which parallels the sixth millennium – lie the seeds of the Final Redemption, because on the sixth day Adam and Eve were created as well.
Thus we see how the six days of Creation parallel the six millennia of human creation, which culminate in Shabbat; and the seventh day, of course, corresponds to the seventh millennium which is the ultimate Shabbat of the world – the Final Redemption.
Shabbat defines history and the purpose of the world
Jewish philosophy has two important insights that emerge from this. The first is that the world had a beginning. For thousands of years secular philosophy believed that the world did not have a beginning and was always there. Only with the advent of the Big Bang Theory did secular philosophy change its position and claim that there was a starting point to the world. They still did not acknowledge that G-d created it, but they now maintained that there was a time prior to which there was nothing and after which there was something. In contrast, Judaism has always taught that the world had a starting point. There was a moment in time at which G-d created the world, and prior to that there was nothing.
The second insight is that not only does the world have a beginning but it also has an end. When something has an end, paradoxically it gives meaning to it. Death is a very painful thing to deal with, but death also infuses life with meaning. Knowing that we have a limited time on this earth helps us focus on what we need to accomplish. When there is an end point there is a purpose. So too with history: knowing that there is an endpoint gives us a different perspective. The world culminates with the grand Shabbat of history, which means we are headed towards something. Shabbat, the ultimate goal, gives purpose to the world.
Shabbat represents the fundamental values of the Torah. Shabbat is different from the other mitzvot in that it contains within it basic principles of Judaism, such as faith and trust in G-d, connection to our families and to our fellow human beings, spirituality and Torah learning. Shabbat encapsulates the essence of Judaism and by making Shabbat the final destination of the world, G-d gave human history a purpose. The world is not just an endless meandering through life’s events which will keep on going for thousands of years, without purpose or structure; rather, it has a goal. G-d created this physical world because he wanted to create a place where people could serve him out of free will and get reward, not like in the heavens where the angels have no free will. The world has a start and an endpoint, and history has a goal. By making Shabbat the seventh day – and the seventh millennium the final destination – G-d is saying all of human history revolves around Shabbat and, consequently, Shabbat defines the purpose of life.
Shabbat defines history in a cosmic sense, and on a smaller scale it also defines our week. Shabbat gives the week a starting point and an endpoint. The very notion of a seven-day week comes from the Torah, from Shabbat. The mitzvah to remember the holiness of Shabbat is fulfilled not only on Shabbat itself but throughout the week. Shabbat defines the week and is its goal; it is the highlight of the week, and its energy feeds into the following week. In the same way that Shabbat gives structure and meaning to the week, so too the great Shabbat of the Final Redemption gives structure and meaning to all of history.
Humankind’s ultimate destination
The fact that Shabbat is the focus of the world also gives us an optimistic view of humankind’s ultimate destination. The verse in Genesis says that G-d created light and darkness. The Midrash comments on this that “He created light” means He created the righteous, who do good deeds and bring light into the world; and “He created darkness” refers to people who use their free choice for evil, and bring darkness into the world.
The Midrash asks, which does G-d prefer – the light or the darkness? The Midrash answers with the rest of the verse, which says, “He saw the light and it was good,” meaning G-d prefers the deeds of the righteous.
The Telzer Rav, Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, asks, how can the Midrash ask whether G-d prefers the light or the darkness, the righteous or the wicked? Isn’t the answer obvious? He explains that the Midrash is actually teaching us something profound about the nature of human history and the dynamics of this world: G-d granted human beings free choice, which means people can choose to do good deeds and bring light into the world or they can choose to do bad deeds and bring darkness into the world. There is a constant struggle in Creation between the forces of good and evil. It is possible, through the exercising of free choice, for evil to triumph – and indeed there have been times throughout history where terrible darkness has engulfed the world. Yet, at other times, the light has triumphed.
The Telzer Rav explains that the Midrash is really asking whether G-d is going to leave history to chance and let the forces of light and darkness fight it out. And the answer is no – “He saw the light and it was good”; somehow, by the End of Days, the forces of light – through free choice – will ultimately triumph. G-d is giving us a guarantee that He is not going to let the world go off the edge and disappear into darkness.
Knowing that the world is headed toward Shabbat – the coming of Mashiach and the Final Redemption – is a statement of optimism about the ultimate destiny of humankind. G-d has given us a guarantee: He is not going to let the world be conquered by the forces of darkness completely. He is going to make sure that no matter how strong the forces of darkness may be, the forces of light will ultimately triumph. That is the meaning of “He saw the light and it was good.”
This is another dimension to the world being structured around Shabbat. Shabbat is not just the purpose and the goal we are trying to achieve, but also a guarantee of what is to come. During the week there are many uncertainties; we all struggle and have to deal with pressure of one kind or another. But we know one thing is certain: when the sun sets on Friday afternoon, come what may, Shabbat will be there. No matter what else is going on in our lives, everything stops once Shabbat arrives. It is a guarantee that there is relief at the end of the week.
And just as we are guaranteed relief at the end of the week, with the coming of Shabbat, so, too, we are guaranteed relief at the end of history, with the final Shabbat of the world. This is why the mitzvah of Shabbat is different from all the other mitzvot: it is the framework for all of human history, and the goal toward which we are headed. Shabbat is the goal, the ultimate purpose, and it is also a testimony to G-d’s optimism regarding the future of humankind.
There is a beginning to human history but there is also an endpoint, a destination. By observing Shabbat we keep that purpose in focus. Every week we return to the moral and spiritual blueprint of the world, ensuring that we stay focused and have the right goals in mind, as we head toward the world’s ultimate destination.