Learning Shabbat from the Monkeys
Today, I plan to teach about monkeys. It is unbelievable, but one can learn Torah from monkeys, just as we speak about humans behaving like monkeys, monkeying around, or , the famous phrase, perhaps attributed to Darwin, " Well, I’ll be a monkeys uncle."
But I will get to my monkeys later, and first look at our
In our opening verses, we read of six days work, and of the seventh day of rest. This statements precedes the description of the making of the sanctuary, and it was out there to remind us of the sanctity of Shabbat. This warning to keep the Shabbat is placed several times through the Torah, always in the context of instructions to build the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. Just last week, we had this similar warning, written to cap of the instructions for appointing the master architects, Bezalel and Oholiab, and had in it the lines we sing today, when we make the Kiddush over wine—Veshamru benay Yisrael.
The Shabbat is unique and special, and not to be misused or abused, or violated, except if human life itself is at stake.
At least, Shabbat was, before we became so modern, and so drawn up in the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. The Torah made a specific point, in this opening statement, to remind us to all make the pause in life that is Shabbat, before we lose track of our lives.
What does Shabbat convey--what does it mean for a committed Jew?
I will answer with the words to a folk song, in Yiddish. Not all Jews spoke Yiddish, for sure, but the sentiments were true in Ladino, Arabic, and Persian as well.
The opening is very international--ay de day di day di day ay di day day day. This is easy for everyone.
But, then it goes on, in Yiddish:
Shabbes, Shabbes, Shabbes, zoll sein immer shabbes; shabbes zoll sein, shabbes zol sein, shabbes oif di ganze welt: To put it into simple English--for the rest of us--Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat, may it always be Shabbat; may it always be Shabbat for the entire world.
Shabbat means an extra spirit, an extra soul, neshamah yeteirah; it means, in the words of human potential pyschologists--self-actualization, or, in the words of the army recruiting song, "Be all that you can be, on Shabbes."
A physician, and philosopher,, of Renaiscence Italy, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno explained the words Shavat vayinafash, “God rested and restored his soul”. Sforno taught that this sense of yinafash ,regaining one's soul, is the very goal of our existence, as intended us when God said,"' Let us make Adam in our image".
My teacher, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught us something very precious about the time we have.
We usually speak of "killing time" or "passing time". Heschel taught us that time is not something to be killed, nor to be passed; rather, it is most precious to us. After all, he said,” the years of our lives are of absolute importance to us."
He further taught:
" Judaism is a religion of time, aimed at the sanctification of time, because no two hours are alike... and only one given to the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious."
Heschel entitled his major work on Shabbat An Island In Time. This is our island. An island in time can be taken anywhere with us, no matter where we are. Even in the concentration camps, under the bleakest of situations, there were Jews who managed to save a little island of Shabbat, by scraping a few pieces of wax or fat together to light a Shabbat candle.
Time is sacred to us, as it become sanctified, as we say, in the kiddush and the amidah , God is mekadesh hashabbat-God has sanctified the Shabbat.
Unfortunately for us, contemporary Jews, Shabbat has fallen victim, to two dangerous trends, which I will call-- too much and too little.
Two much strictness, which well-meaning and devout Jews planted into the observance of Shabbat, which changed its mood and atmosphere, and too little love of Shabbat, which easily falls victim to the normal destruction of life which our modern civilization carries on.
Of the making of mitzvot there is no end, and it seems, no end to the intricacies of Shabbat.
Our Torah and our sages intended to keep us away from any constructive activity-- they discerned basic categories of work--activities that were part of the basic economic necessities of the day--agriculture, construction, commerce, with its possible implications, as well.
For our ancestors, it was in just this meticulous observance of the finest detail, that they found the way to heaven. But sometimes, they also blocked the way to heaven.
This complaint was made over two centuries ago, when all Jews were observant Jews.
I want to share with you this tale, told by the Rabbi of Sadigur, :
The Baal Shem Tov once had a dream: he was taken to see heaven, gan eden, and hell, gehenna. If he would use his intelligence, he would go to heaven, but if he failed, he would, unfortunately, be condemned to go down below forever..
In each place, he was told, he would have a partner.
Who was to be his partner in heaven? A very simple Jew, uneducated, living in the midst of non-Jews, assimilated, and he had only one vestige left of his Judaism--on Shabbat, he would host a banquet for his non-Jewish friends.
The Baal Shem Tov was intrigued. Why do you host this banquet, he asked the man in his dreams?
" I don't know,” he replied, “but I recall that as a youth, my parents would prepare beautiful meals on Saturday and sing many songs, and so I do the same."
The Baal Shem Tov was about to tell him how much of his Shabbat was wrong, and violated so many rules--but the power of speech failed him, when he realized he would only ruin the beauty of his observance.
He then inquired about his partner to be in hell.
Lo and behold, a strictly devout Jew, meticulous, always in anxiety lest his behavior be wrong, lest he commit a mistake. He passed the entire Shabbat as if he were sitting on burning coals.
The Baal Shem Tov wished to teach him how mistaken he was, but again, the power of speech failed him when he realized that the man would never understand what was wrong.
From this dream, it is said, the Baal Shem Tov understood that true service of God is in joy which comes from the heart. Do you realize, by the way, how drastic and radical this story, told by the pious Rebbe of Sadigur was? It meant that our very pious and frum Jews had simply created a hell out of Judaism, instead of making it a paradise.
The other problem facing Shabbat, is, of course, the modern one--too little--too little love of Shabbat, too little awareness, too little attention, too little, indeed, for the most case, no Shabbat, none at all.
In our modern lives, we have lost the meaning and function of Shabbat, till it is none existent, irrelevant to most of our lives.
We ask the question, then, why should we, today, now want to make it once again part of our lives.
Our reading strikes us today as very draconian, Kol haoseh bo melachah yumat, whoever does work on this day shall be put to death!
Of course, Judaism was never intended to destroy life but to preserve it. And as such, we always asked the question, what does it really mean.
The Hebrew said yumat--This translates" He will die". It doesn't say" You have to execute him." It merely says "He will die."
Keep in mind, that in truth, the average American has been working more and more hours, earning less, and surely, in this economy, enjoying life less.
Tell me, if anyone is constantly at work, constantly struggling, constantly pushing, without a break, without a moment to enjoy what he or she is creating-do you think that is living? Is that being alive. How long, indeed, can anyone live without a rest, without a spiritual rest as well as a physical rest- Otherwise, life is one prolonged anxiety-attack, ulcer, and coronary.
That, I want to claim, is what the Torah warned us of. Shabbat was here to be the goal of our lives, to make our lives worth living, to enable us to savor the blessings of our life. It was always done by removing the distractions, the labors and burdens of the six days of drudgery, and replacing it with food, friends, family, enjoyment both emotional and physical, and with the sense of the sacred and the holy.
We know that keeping Shabbat in all its particulars is difficult in modern life. There are realities, such as parnasah- making a living—and sometimes, we just don’t have the choice. Our great Jewish Yeshivas and Schools, frankly, were founded and kept afloat by Jews who worked on Shabbat to pay the bills.
But Shabbat does not require a prison! It is not all or nothing. We can do small steps, small steps that combine to make a great Shabbat. A candle, a prayer, a Kiddush, a meal, a quiet moment. Little pieces that can add up eventually to a great whole.
I said, at the beginning, that I would speak about monkeys. No, I don't want to make monkeys of us, but there is something to be learned from them.
There is a classic experiment, in which two monkeys are put in the electric chair. The first monkey was the executive monkey. He had the button to push, and if he pushed it the right combination or the right way, nothing would happen, but if he goofed, he and the other monkey would get a jolt. The other monkey had no say in the matter, and had no button to push. He was totally at the mercy of his companion, and received the same shock his companion did--but, again, he had no say in the matter.
Both monkeys, surely were very unhappy. Both suffered. But which monkey died ?
The one with the button to push.
The executive monkey developed ulcers, tuberculosis, heart conditions, all the diseases that executive humans develop under stress. He probably kept on saying to himself," I'm going to master and control this button if it’s the last thing I do"--and it invariably was.
The other--disenfranchised, powerless, struck by jolts with no say over them--he managed to live well and healthy in each case. He was probably very philosophical and said, "There are things in life bigger than me. Let me take it one day at a time, for the best that I can, and at least enjoy my bananas and peanuts in between.”
Well, we believe we are better than monkeys, that we are but a little lower than angels--but we also always hold the buttons to the hot seat. We can't always be like the executive monkey--we just won't make it. From time to time, every Shabbat, we have to put our buttons away, forget taking command of our universe and the people around us, save our souls, take time out, stop, look, listen, and live. This Shabbat and every Shabbat. Amen.