This week’s portion of the Torah is “Shelach L’cha”. Many remember this portion as the incident of the spies and the mandate from Hashem that all the Israelites over the age of 20 are doomed to die off in the desert. However, there are other situations addressed here that are also important to our people.
Towards the end of the portion, we are told of a man who was out in Wilderness gathering wood on Shabbat. People were outraged that he was desecrating the day of rest and went to Moses. Moses went to G-d and the consequence was capital punishment.
This seems pretty severe, especially 3300 years later as we look towards the Torah for guidance. It is almost incomprehensible that someone is punished this severely for just not resting. And if we want to do something on Shabbat, isn’t that our business anyway?
And just to clarify, there’s more to the story than that. The individual in question was first warned, two witnesses saw hm do this after the warning, and let’s face it, he did it in front of the whole community. Under the surface, it probably wasn’t just about gathering wood.
Nowadays, it seems that a seven-day week is not enough, let alone six. Not only do we have to spend forty hours of each week earning a livelihood, but then there’s the commuting. Most of us also have chores and everyday tasks to do as well. On the weekends, many of us have kids or grandkids that we take to or watch their activities. We also have projects. Who has time to rest?
Maybe if Hashem wanted us to rest a day, maybe our weeks should be eight or nine days! Then it would be a lot easier to take one day and do nothing (or maybe we’d be just as busy and want a 10 or 11 day week). How can He expect us to forego one day a week and let all the other stuff just pile up? And if we did take that day to rest, all we’d do is fret and worry over all the things we have to do and didn’t get to do last week. Oh, by the way, did we mention paying bills in all those tasks?
We can get anxious just listening to all we have to do and then figuring out when to do it all. So what’s the point?
Well, that is the point. First of all, rest is not just important, it’s critical and crucial to engaging in our daily activities. Everyone knows this, because everyone has had days when they didn’t get enough sleep or had a lot to do over the weekend and then came back to the workweek completely exhausted hating life. We rationalize by saying that it’s either that or let things pile up and then it would even worse.
We would probably all agree that conceptually, having one day in seven to kick back is a pretty good idea. If only…. Well, in Judaism, having a day off is so important, it’s one of the top ten. In fact, it’s number four, even before not killing or stealing. Of course, the implication is not that if you get too tired, you’re going to go out and commit crimes!
The obvious point is that there’s more to it than just resting. The verses after this passage, the Maftir, is the third paragraph of the “Shema”. This introduces us to the commandment of putting tzitzis on the corners of our clothes. The knots that we tie on those strings remind us to remember and do all the commandments.
We know that the sequence of the Torah is not random; the verses are in their specific places and in a specific order for a reason. Consider that it is on purpose that the commandment to put tzitzis on our clothes follows the incident of someone desecrating the Shabbat. It would seem that observing Shabbat is specifically related to knowing and performing all the commandments.
And that is exactly the point. Not only is the Shabbat a day off and a time out from mundane and material work, it a day of spiritual refreshment. With all our attention directed out into the material world, it can be easy to forget the purpose of life. With all our efforts directed at managing life, sometimes we forget or sidestep some of the ethics and morality. Being so busy, there is this temptation to take shortcuts.
But it’s not necessarily so simple. It’s not as easy as when you’re busy, you lose your integrity.
The point is that it’s sometimes easy to become so busy and focused on doing things in life that we forget what’s it all about. We go to work support our families, so life isn’t so stressful, and we have time to impart important values to our offspring.