Keeping the Bar Raised
Six days you will do your work, and on the seventh day you will rest, as
well as your ox. Your donkey will rest, the son of your maidservant, and the
stranger, so that they may be refreshed. (Shemos 23:12)
Of all the parshios to choose to speak about the mitzvah of Shabbos, this is
probably the least likely. After all, the mitzvah of Shabbos comes up in
other parshios less packed with mitzvos and ideas. Why overlook a one-time
opportunity to speak about those mitzvos and choose to speak one that comes
True, there are many and various mitzvos in this week’s parshah, many of
which seem unrelated. Indeed, the only thread to the parshah seems to be the
general idea of mishpatim, or laws. But that is not really true. There is
another thread, a deeper one, and it is Shabbos, and that is why this
parshah, specifically, is the one in which to talk about Shabbos.
When people think about Shabbos, and what it, and all of its laws, are
supposed to do for man, they think about how it reminds man of Who runs the
world, so that he can maintain an appreciation of the gift of life and the
gifts that come in life. That is 100 percent true, but not 100 percent complete.
The corollary, or at least, one of the main results of recognizing God as
your Master, and the One to Whom you owe everything, should be the way you
treat the world, and everyone in it. Relationships between people are a
function of one’s relationship with God, as evident over the ages.
One such example of this is the Torah’s explanation of the role God plays in
a marriage. The Hebrew word for man and woman is Ish and Ishah respectively.
Both words contain the letters Aleph and Shin, which spell the word fire,
but only one contains a Yud and only one contains a Heh, when combined,
spells a Name of God. Hence, if they are removed from ish and ishah, all
that remains is aish, which means fire, indicating that a Godless marriage
will consume itself (Kiddushin).
“But,” a person will argue, “there are many marriages out there working just
fine, and the couples are not that religious at all, and often not at all.
How does that fit with what the Talmud says?”
Because, being consumed doesn’t necessarily mean that the couple will fight
and, perhaps, get a divorce. There are other ways to consume a marriage,
some worse than others, and some less obvious than others. From a secular
point of view, the marriage may work fine. But, from the Creator’s point of
view, which is the only one that counts, it may lack the most important
components of all.
Another example of this idea is the 49 levels of spiritual impurity that the
Jewish people supposedly descended to before God put the breaks on their
spiritual descent in Egypt, while there was still something to redeem. What
were they? What did Egyptian society look like on such a low spiritual
level? Completely immodest and promiscuous?
If yes, then how did Yosef even live there for one day, let alone work with
such people every day? How could Ya’akov escape famine in Canaan by going
down to Egypt, especially with his entire family, if they couldn’t even walk
the streets because Egypt was so sexually uninhibited?
Exactly. That is proof that such immodesty and promiscuity are only symptoms
of a society that has reached the 49th level of spiritual impurity, but not
the actual expression of it. In fact, though there is no question that
illicit sexual relationships were the norm in Egypt, still it was a society
that could be modest enough for the likes of Yosef and his family, at least
To appreciate what it means to live on the 49th level of impurity, you have
to first understand what impurity is, from a Torah perspective. The answer
is quite surprising, and far more relevant, and logical, than most might think.
From a Torah perspective, what is the ultimate source of tuma, or spiritual
impurity? It is a dead body, and a dead body is certainly not promiscuous.
So, then, what makes a body such a great source of spiritual impurity? It is
its inability to have an experience of God, something the soul is here to
In other words, anything that limits, in any way, the body’s experience of
God in this world is a source of spiritual impurity, another name for which
is Klipos, or “Peels,” since they act as a barrier between man and God.
Hence, a place on the 49th level of impurity is one that does everything it
can to push God out of the picture.
As mentioned many times before, the name Mitzrayim is composed of two
sections, meitzer, which means “boundary,” and yum, which has a gematria of
50, to allude to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, which allow us to
maximize our experience of God. Hence, Mitzrayim can be any place throughout
the world, regardless of geographical location, that constricts knowledge of
God, and the experience of His Presence in every day life.
This is why Yosef could live and work in such a place, because people could
have been on the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and still dressed
relatively modest for him. It happens all the time in Western society, where
God is constantly being pushed out of the picture, but people can still
dress appropriately to go to work. Just because someone is a sworn atheist
does not mean that he does not dress decently, at least in public.
Behind closed doors may be another story, since once God is no longer a
factor in people’s lives, then promiscuity is certainly to follow, evident
by the way the wife of Potiphar was prepared to seduce Yosef. Indeed, the
Talmud states that the only reason why the Jewish people were involved in
idol worship, which they knew really had no power, was to permit illicit
Hence, the fact that the Yud and Heh are non-existence in a couple’s
relationship does not mean that they will become outcasts from society. To
the public eye, they can seem perfectly normal by society’s standards. The
question is, does their relationship amount to anything meaningful, anything
It is the Yud and the Heh in a marriage that allows a person to serve a
marriage, rather than have the marriage serve him or her. It makes people
selfless, and turns the marriage into a vehicle to allow each other to
become closer to God. When this happens, then a marriage ascends to a much
higher plane, and becomes more eternal.
This is not only true of marriage, but of all relationships, and life in
general. When a person allows God to be up front in his life, meaning that
he is always concerned what God thinks about what he is doing, then he
becomes what we call a real mentch. He becomes sensitive to the needs of
others, and how others need him. He is careful regarding the well-being of
others, and their property.
But life constantly draws the Yud-Heh out of our lives. As Rashi points out,
that is what Amalek does best (Shemos 17:16), and the net result is Jews who
have become desensitized to what counts most in life, and who have become
less respectful of other people. Nothing makes Amalek smile more than
watching a “Me Generation” rise to power.
Shabbos is a major part of the antidote. Shabbos puts the Yud and the Heh
back into our lives, so that we can have meaningful relationships, and treat
one another with respect, and so that all the laws of protecting others and
their property can become superfluous. When people keep Shabbos properly,
they become free of the pitfalls created by the yetzer hara.
The Talmud, in fact, says exactly this:
Had the Jewish people kept the first Shabbos, no nation could have had any
power over them, as its says, “And it was on the seventh day that the people
went out to collect …” (Shemos 16:22). What is written afterwards, “And
Amalek came …” (Shabbos 118b)
The Talmud is making a connection between the profaning of Shabbos and the
attack by Amalek that followed shortly after. However, as Rashi points out,
the attack by Amalek was the result of a different event:
Moshe did so in the eyes of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah
and Merivah, because Israel argued there, and because they tested God by
asking, “Is God with us or not?” Amalek came and attacked Israel in Refidim.
The Torah places this section immediately after this verse (when they said,
“Is G-d among us or not?”) to imply, “I am always among you and ready at
hand for everything you need, and yet you say, ‘Is God among us or not?’ By
your lives, that dog shall come and bite you, and you will cry for Me and
then you will know where I am!” It is like a man who carried his son on his
shoulders and went on a journey. The son saw an article and said, “Father,
pick up that thing and give it to me.” He gave it to him, and so a second
time and also a third time. Yet, when they met a certain man along the
journey, the son asked him, “Have you seen my father anywhere?” Therefore,
the father said to him, “You do not know where I am?” At which point he put
him down and a dog came and bit him. (Rashi, Shemos 17:8)
Of course, after some thinking, it is clear that they are really one and the
same reason. Shabbos is the answer to the question, “Is God amongst us or
not?” To ask the question is evidence that the Yud-Heh is missing from the
person’s relationship with God. Amalek attacking was, is, the fire that
consumes the person, or people who have such a lack of clarity, or doubt,
the gematria of Amalek.
I know such people, or of such people. Some of them are millionaires, and
live a great life, materially. They live in expensive houses, drive fancy
cars, and travel at will. They never have to think twice about anything they
buy, and others look upon them with envy. What else could they ask for?
But God is not in their lives. They neither know Torah or have a desire to
learn it. They might fast on Yom Kippur and attend synagogue on the High
Holidays, but they’d rather not, and do so only because that is what they
have been trained to do. They’re not even sure that God exists, and they do
not believe for a moment that He gave the Torah at Sinai, so why should they
be happy about going to shul for several hours even just twice a year?
They won’t even talk about God or Torah, some of them. They certainly won’t
allow themselves to be engaged in a conversation that claims the veracity of
Torah, feigning a lack of interest when in fact what they feel is fear, fear
that the Torah might indeed be true, and therefore, that they are obligated
to change their lives. They act as if ignoring the possibility of Torah
being true makes it untrue, and them, unobligated.
It’s against all logic. There is too much at stake to be wrong about this
one. All the money in the world, and all the pleasure that one might
possibly be able to enjoy even over many lifetimes could never justify going
to Gihenom. It’s a system, and it can’t be beaten.
“But Your Honors,” an atheist or agnostic might imagine saying in his
defense on his final day of judgment before the Heavenly Tribunal, “I didn’t
know better. I didn’t know the real truth, and was confused. All that I did
but shouldn’t have, and all that I didn’t do but should have, was because of
my doubt in the existence of God, and the validity of Torah from Sinai. Had
I known better ...”
And that’s where they’ll cut the person off. “Had you known better?” they’ll
ask, perhaps mockingly. “Had you known better? How could you not have? God
kept sending you all kinds of signs and people to open your heart and mind,
and you rejected them all. You scoffed at them, choosing to live a Godless
life instead, creating and maintaining your doubt as a cover for your
immoral lifestyle. But, it was a nice try anyhow.”
Lacking the Yud-Heh of Shabbos in life does not mean that a person will not
be a nice person. It does not mean that he or she won’t be charitable, kind
to others. It does not mean that they won’t be presentable, or a pleasure to
be around. It often does, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
This is because these are all components of being human. To be human is to
automatically do these things. To be a believer in Torah, though, means that
someone is nice because it is the Godly thing to do. Being Torah-observant
means giving charity because it is tzeddakah, a righteous and Godly act. It
means being presentable, not because it makes you, personally, more
attractive, but because you represent God, and want Him to look more
As a Torah-Jew, if you’re a pleasure to be around, it is because of how you
help others to find meaning in their lives, not because it makes you
popular, or feel good to be liked. You are not just a mentsch, but a Godly
mentsch, a light unto people for all the right reasons.
What is the ultimate difference between the two? The level of the bar. As
society has proven many times before, societal standards quickly dissolve
when crises threaten the standard of living of its members. In such
situations, people tend to act very unGodly, and treat one another even
worse than animals treat each other.
On the other hand, to keep Shabbos is to maintain a strong hold on one’s
connection to the Yud-Heh in their own lives, and to keep the bar raised on
one’s level of behavior. On such a level, laws that protect one person from
the damage of another become superfluous, since being respectful of others
becomes as natural as breathing itself.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.