“These are My set times.” (Lev. 23:3) This phrase shows up during this week’s Torah portion, Emor, as we read of God’s favorite holidays, Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Yom Kippur. On each of them, we are told to rest, take a complete rest, do no work, on the day, on that very day, …..doesn’t all of this say the same thing?
Sometimes the Torah says “etzem hayom” , (that very day, or that same day) sometimes it says, “shabbaton” (like a Sabbath of Sabbaths?) and sometimes it just says, kol malachta lo ta’asu – “don’t do your work.” What does any of that mean? What does it mean to do work, or rather, not do work? What’s the difference between rest and a complete rest? What’s the difference between resting and doing no work?
Lucky for you, others have asked those very questions. Torah commentators pretty much agree there’s no unnecessary word in the text, which means if you can’t figure out what a word means or why it’s there, it’s an opportunity for creativity – an invitation to delve deep and develop midrash (commentary). Biblical commentators pull in all sorts of other examples where a word is used to establish proof-texts, sort of like using the whole set of Biblical and post Biblical writings as a hypertext. So, strap on your language-packs for a minute, and follow me.
Both Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th c Spain) and my own Torah class (Kaftora v’ferach, 21st c Northbrook) looked at these questions. Here are some of the ideas we discussed (Ramban and my class….we’re tight.)
There is a difference between rest and not working. The text is designating compartments in time, determining what can be done, or not done, in each compartment. Just as certain behavior is appropriate for certain places, like the Tabernacle or your great-aunt’s dinner table, certain behavior is appropriate for certain designated time slots. God’s saying, “These holidays are designated time slots; behave accordingly.” Ramban comments on Lev 23:24 “You shall observe a complete rest….shabbaton.” It’s not enough to refrain from anything that looks like it might have been done to build the Tabernacle (the guideline of what constitutes work),because there’s plenty you could be doing that would technically not be called “work” but looks like work, i.e. “one could toil all day at weighing produce, filling barrels with wine, moving things from place to place, buying and selling, even loading one’s animals…if there’s a wall around the city, all these things would be (legally) permissible” (JPS Miqraot Gedolot – Vayikra) Doesn’t sound like a day of rest to me, does it? That’s why, Ramban says, the word is shabbaton…complete rest. Rest and relaxation, true rest.
Letter of the law vs spirit of the law? I think so. I think we take Ramban’s commentary to heart each time we look beyond the legalese, and get to the intention of the matter. How is this holiday to be acknowledged? How is my “rest” to be acknowledged? Have I observed and guarded the designated compartment of time that the Torah identifies? Have I then, made it “holy” – separate, unique, special? Or have I blurred the distinctions between any day and that day?
Later on in this section, we saw the word “etzem” referring to Yom Kippur –not to do work on etzem hayom – that very day. Why this extra word? Another meaning of the word etzem is “bone”, like a skeletal structure. Kaftor v’ferach, my Tuesday Torah group, expanded upon that idea. Bones give the body a framework; without a skeletal structure, the body would collapse. It’s not just the holiday itself that has a structure and framework to it , although that’s true. We need structure, individually and as a community. These holidays , Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Yom Kippur are each etzem, bones, the framework upon which our time is compartmentalized, and the community’s time as well. We fill in around the skeleton with the lifeblood of our history and passion, our muscles are strengthened each time we stretch to find new meaning in ritual or teachings, and our lungs are filled with fresh air each time we breathe in new understanding.
The stronger the bones, the stronger the body. These won’t be the “bones” of an ancient, non-existent people, but the very real, very now core of individuals and a community that is living and thriving.