On Shabbat, finding a closeness to Hashem


Our parshiot, Vayakel-Pekudei, begin with the construction of the Mishkan (the portable desert sanctuary): “Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: ‘These are the things that the L-rd commanded to make’.” Our immediate expectation would be for the Torah to begin to list all of the details pursuant to building the Mishkan. This is the case, for example, in the beginning of Parashat Terumah wherein we find precisely this manner of presentation.

Our parasha, however, deviates from this approach. Instead of launching into a discussion of the constitutive elements of the Mishkan, the Torah “interrupts itself” with two verses that speak about the sanctity of Shabbat:

“Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the L-rd; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Shemot 35:2-3)

Rashi, basing himself upon the Mechilta, the halachic Midrash to Shemot, provides us with a rationale for the inclusion of these two seemingly incongruous pasukim: “Six days He [Moses] prefaced [the discussion of the details of] the work of the Mishkan with the warning to keep the Sabbath, denoting that it [i.e., the work of the Mishkan] does not supersede the Sabbath.” In sum, the Torah is teaching us that even the construction of Hashem’s dwelling place on earth must cease at the onset of this most consecrated of all days.

Each of us experiences Shabbat and its kedushah in our own unique fashion. Many of us have a favorite Shabbat time. For some, it is the Friday evening meal that is preceded by Lecha Dodi in shul, and ushered in amid the singing of Shalom Aleichem and Aishet Chail. For others, it is the morning tefilah service in synagogue, and the Torah reading, followed by the second meal.

Personally, I am most deeply affected by the final meal of the day, Seudat Shlishit, which, perhaps, is best viewed as the last bastion of kedushah that separates us from weekday activities and their attendant uncertainties and anxieties. Speaking personally, it is the time when I most experience the neshamah yeteirah (the extra soul) that the holiness of Shabbat bestows upon us. The singing of Mizmor l’David (Psalm 23), Yedid Nefesh and the accompanying divrei Torah often transport me to my highest spiritual heights, and create a transformative moment that helps me strengthen my bonds Hakadosh Baruch Hu. 

Many have suggested that Mizmor l’David, in particular, captures the ideal essence of the Jewish religious experience. It speaks of peace, serenity, and inner calm:

“A song of David. The L-rd is my shepherd; I shall not want. He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff - they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the L-rd for length of days.”

My rebbe and mentor, the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal), depicted the relationship that obtains between Seudat Shlishit and Psalm 23 in his seminal work, Halakhic Man: “It is true that during the third Sabbath meal at dusk, as the day of rest declines and man’s soul yearns for its Creator and is afraid to depart from the realm of holiness whose name is Sabbath, into the dark and frightening, secular workaday week, we sing the psalm ‘The 

L-rd is my shepherd; I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters etc., and we believe with our entire hearts in the word of the psalmist’.”

In the Rav’s view, while this psalm describes the ultimate goal of peace and serenity for a religious being, the path leading to this destination “is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy.” In his estimation, the path of religion in general, and Judaism in particular, “is not the royal road, but a narrow, twisting footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope.”

Judaism, when lived to its fullest, when approached with intellectual daring and candor, helps one navigate “the straits of inner oppositions, and incongruities, spiritual doubts and uncertainties.”

Life, then, for the thinking religious Jew, may very well be a challenging journey filled with the trials and tribulations of a searching soul. Little wonder then, that we yearn for the ultimate tranquility portrayed by King David in Mizmor l’David, and that the psalm is sung during the waning hours of the seventh day when we are infused with the Shabbat’s singular holiness.

With the Almighty’s help, may we be zocheh to encounter the spiritually-transforming potential of Shabbat, and thereby achieve the closeness to Hashem we so strongly desire. V’chane yihi ratzon.