Shabbat Shabbaton–The Ultimate Shabbat”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

When are artists at their most exalted state of creativity? Is it when they dip their brushes into the colorful paints and blend the hues across the canvas? Is it when an image is finally discernible? Or perhaps true creativity takes place when the artist stops to inspect the work, looks at what he/she has created, and decides what more needs to be done? This of course raises the following issue: do resting, introspection and contemplation in fact qualify as essential parts of the creative process?

Some would argue that true artists may be recognized by how introspective they are, particularly when they are not at their easels or in their workshops. It is at moments of rest that charlatans are revealed–those who seem to be at work but who never really create anything of value. While both the true artist and the charlatan work and strive, only one of them stops to honestly inspect their works. It was the Greek philosopher, Plotinus (204-270 CE), who said that contemplation “is the origin of all things,” and that creativity is always the outcome of contemplation.

It is not at all coincidental that the Al-mighty ceased creating and rested on the Sabbath day. It was at that moment that He looked at the work of His hands, investigated His accomplishments, thought about possible modifications and considered what yet remained to be done.

The Talmud in Brachot 10a cogently expresses G-d’s creative role. Reinterpreting the words stated by Hannah, the mother of Samuel (I Sammuel 2:2), “Ayn tzoor kay’lo’kay’noo,” there is no Rock like our G-d, the Talmud alters the wording from “tzoor” to “tza’yar,” meaning an artist. The verse now reads: “Ayn tza’yar k’Ay’lo’kay’noo,” there is no artist like our G-d.

G-d, the Ultimate Artist, the complete artist, knew that the Sabbath day, a day set aside for thought and contemplation, is an essential element of the act of creating. The Shabbat is not meant to be simply a day of rest from labor and work, but part and parcel of the innate creative process. This, too, is alluded to in the words of Genesis 2:23 that are recited in the Friday night Kiddush: “Va’y’chal Eh’lo’kim ba’yom hahsh’vee’ee m’lahch’toh ah’sher ah’sah, va’yish’boht ba’yom hahsh’vee’ee me’kol m’lach’toh ah’sher ah’sah.” By the seventh day, G-d completed His work which He had done, and abstained on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

It is frequently asked, why does the Torah say that G-d completed His work on the seventh day? Didn’t He actually finish on the sixth day? The authors of the Septuagint (300-200 BCE), when translating the Torah into Greek, purposely amended the words “seventh day” to read “sixth day” because they knew that the Greeks would not understand that G-d did not complete His creation on the sixth day, but rather on the seventh day. It was on the seventh day, that G-d carefully and lovingly reviewed His creation, to see if He had actually achieved His full ideal. As the Torah says in Exodus 31:17, “Oo’vah’yom hahsh’vee’ee shavat va’yee’na’fahsh,” on the seventh day, G-d rested and was refreshed. The word “va’yee’na’fahsh” is actually derived from the root of the Hebrew word “nefesh,” soul, meaning that G-d’s soul was refreshed and reinspirited by resting on the Shabbat. It was on Shabbat that G-d’s spirit was so-to-speak renewed, allowing Him to continue creating and to complete what was necessary.

This is why the Torah (Leviticus 16:31 and 23:32) refers to Yom Kippur as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” the ultimate Sabbath. It is through the ultimate Shabbat that we discern whether we have remained true to the mission of our lives. On Yom Kippur, we are like the Ultimate Artist who introspects and takes account of his materials, his easel, and his drawing board. If all is in order, then we have fulfilled the ultimate purpose of the ultimate Shabbat.

Human beings need to rest, need to check and evaluate their accomplishments, to ascertain that what they are doing with their lives is on track and purposeful. Consequently, it is imperative for every person to stop and ask in the manner of the Hebrew prayer (Selichot), “Meh ah’noo, meh cha’yay’noo, mah ko’chay’noo, mah chas’day’noo, mah tzid’ko’tay’noo?” What are we? What are our lives? What is our strength? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? All year long we run frenetically, at times aimlessly, to and fro. If we were true artists, we would know that not only are actions necessary, but that thinking and contemplation are essential as well. That is why we need an ultimate Shabbat to check and investigate our deeds, to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “Where we are going?”

Although it is rarely acknowledged, for much of Jewish history, Jewish life was rich, despite the immense difficulties, because Jews were, for the most part, true artists. Despite living in poverty, oppression, filth and desperation, spat upon by enemies who regarded the Jews as rejected and cast away, Jews, nevertheless, often created for themselves a spiritual life that was complete. Not only did they gather strength from the Sabbath, but each Sabbath of the year was utilized as a time to evaluate their deeds. On Shabbat they “tested” themselves and “measured” their children. They looked back upon Jewish history, to see where they had failed, in order to recognize the areas that needed to be repaired.

Tragically, most contemporary Jews have, for the most part, chased the spirit of Shabbat from their midst. We are no longer original. We work, build, create, but we don’t stop to seriously and honestly contemplate or think about our work, to think about why we work and what we have achieved. We don’t properly use the weekly Sabbath, or for that matter, the ultimate Sabbath–Yom Kippur. We are no longer artists; we have become lay craftsmen, menial workers of life.

When the artist or sculptor stops to inspect and finds a line out of kilter, he straightens it. When he sees an inappropriate rounded edge, he straightens it. Too much light at one point, and too much shade at another, he adjusts the lighting. He takes hold of his palette or his chisel and makes the corrections.

And so, we too need to straighten our rough edges and smooth them. We need to chisel what is crooked, and where there is darkness, we need to introduce light. We need to rest, like the Ultimate Divine Artist, in order to properly restore our souls, so that we will be imbued with sufficient inspiration for new creativity, in our pursuit of a full life and a full world.

On this Yom Kippur, the Ultimate Shabbat, we need to restore the original spirit to our Sabbaths, to the Sabbaths of our lives. We must not allow ourselves to be content with robotic actions, thoroughly devoid of spirit. We must become more introspective and regularly evaluate ourselves. We need to improve our lives, the lives that we create for ourselves, so that we can proudly say, like the Al-mighty said after His creation, “Look at my creation that I have created, and the form that I have shaped” (Bereishith Rabbah 12:1).

Let us build a beautiful Jewish life of value and of fulfillment, both spiritual and material, a life in which the Divine Presence dwells and reveals all Her blessings.

G’mar Chatima Tovah–May all the blessings of the Al-mighty be yours.

May you be blessed.

Yom Kippur (click here) will be observed this year on Sunday evening, September 27th through Monday, September 28th, 2009.