Shabbat as a utopian ideal

Shabbat as a utopian ideal

Behar-Behukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34

This week’s Torah reading is drawn from a double portion, Behar-Behukotai.

Behar is associated with the laws of sabbatical; that is, we are instructed to allow land to lie fallow every seventh year, and to celebrate an extra-ordinary sabbatical, a jubilee, in the 50th year.

Behukotai, in contrast, is concerned with the blessings one merits for the fulfillment of — or the curses one earns for a failure to keep — the Torah’s laws.  In essence, the former details the need to step back from our preoccupation with the business of our lives, while the latter details the rewards and punishments that are the consequence of our actions.  The juxtaposition of these two portions (they are paired as a result of the calendar) allows us to reflect on what they may come to teach us in dialogue one with the other.

The wisdom of reading these portions in this way is apparent if we allow, as my professor, Alvin Reines z”l, taught, that the Shabbat is best understood, not as a specific day but rather, as a state of being.

The Torah instructs us to set aside the seventh day for reflection and rest, but it is impossible to look to the heavens to know the day of the week.  This stands in contrast to our ability to look heavenward to discern the time of year, or where we are within a month, or even to know the time of day or night; but it is simply not possible to discern by natural phenomena whether it is Tuesday or Friday.  For this, we require others; we need a community defined by a shared set of values.  Thus any day can be as the Sabbath; and any year can be a departure from our routine.

The gift Judaism has given the world with regard to Shabbat and the Sabbatical year is, therefore, the idea that from time to time — weekly and every few years — we owe ourselves and one another the privilege of stepping outside the regular patterns that have come to define our work lives, wherein our days buzz with activity and are too often defined only by what we pursue each for our own benefit.  

But writing in “The Sabbath World,” Judith Shulevitz, opines, “[Shabbat] is not just a holy day of rest.  It is also a utopian idea about a more sociable, purer world.”  If so for a weekly respite, how much the more so for the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years! Perhaps, irrespective of where we may be in our calendar, it is time for our community to heed the two Torah portions we read this week.  Imagine, they instruct, what it could mean were we to decide to approach a day in the week ahead as Shabbat, and the year upcoming as a sabbatical from our regular routines.  Consider the rewards, our Torah enjoins, were we to determine to do what we do differently in the days and year ahead.  How much the better might our land and people might be were we willing to imagine our work and its rewards differently.

I am a congregational rabbi, so I spend a good deal of time thinking about how our community (and not just my congregation) can best realize the goals we all articulate and share.  For this reason, I suppose, I hear in this week’s Torah readings a challenge to all of us to step back from the activities that preoccupy us day in and day out, opting to depart from the regular way of “doing business,” choosing instead to engage in a larger conversation about what we could gain for a willingness to work differently, to work in partnership, to be actively supportive of one another in pursuit of our common goals.  For it is only in this way, I am convinced, that we might just be able to realize more than we are accomplishing today and in time might merit the full rewards our Torah holds out for us.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)