Here’s a tricky question: When were we first taught the mitzvah of Shabbos?
Rashi (Shemos 15:25) indicates that we were first told about Shabbos in a place called Marah, which was the first stopover after traversing the Red Sea. If so, Shabbos predates the giving of the Torah. The first place the Torah actually mentions keeping Shabbos is in parshas Yisro (Shemos 20:7-10), in the context of the Ten Commandments. This “repetition” does not present any difficulty; it is appropriate that a mitzvah as crucial as Shabbos receive explicit mention in the Torah, as opposed to the mere allusion it gets in Marah.
But what about the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayakhel/ Pekudei (35:2-3):
“And Moshe gathered the entire Congregation of Israel and he said to them: These are the things that Hashem commanded to do them: Six days shall work be done. And on the seventh day, it shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest. Anyone who performs melacha (loose translation: work) on it shall be put to death.”
Rashi comments that this gathering took place the day after Yom Kippur (at the beginning of their second year in the desert). Why indeed did Moshe gather the Jews right after Yom Kippur in order to repeat the mitzvah of Shabbos? Was anything new taught at this juncture?
Perhaps a short story would be useful in order to understand what’s going on here:
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld zt”l, Rav of Yerushalayim, was renowned for his clarity and deep understanding of the Torah. From all over Eretz Yisrael, Jews came to him to seek his advice and have him adjudicate their disputes. He also had a knack at coming up with a compromise that satisfied both parties.
On occasion, however, when a equitable compromise was impossible, he was not scared to rule strictly according to the Torah. There were of course occasions on which his rulings were not appreciated by the defeated litigants.
During one particularly difficult din Torah (court case), he was forced to rule against a group of people who were wealthy and powerful members of the community. They did not take his decision lightly, and vigorously voiced their disapproval. Their words, of course, did not sway his view.
One evening during the month of Elul (September), R’ Yosef Chaim had just sat down to eat supper with his family. Suddenly, the door to his house swung open and a number of the infuriated litigants burst through and began screaming at R’ Yosef Chaim in a very demeaning and disrespectful manner. R’ Yosef Chaim, taken aback by their sudden entry, sat quietly as they spewed forth their venom. When they finally concluded their diatribe, all eyes turned to R’ Yosef Chaim: How would a great man react to such a blatant act of disrespect to both himself and the Torah? Slowly, he rose from his seat.
“Let it be known,” he said in a powerful voice, “that I have attempted to rule correctly according to my interpretation of the holy Torah. If I have erred, G-d forbid, then I ask for Hashem’s forgiveness. But if, as I believe is the case, I am correct,” at this point his voice went up a notch, “then I want you to know, that despite the tremendous pain and embarrassment you have caused me in front of my family, I am completely willing to forgive you! I ask only that you submit to the ruling of the Torah, and accept to conduct yourselves according to its law.” At this last statement his assailers were so stunned that they turned and left his house as quickly as they had come.
R’ Yosef Chaim turned to his family. “Let me explain what just happened: Those men were extremely disappointed at my having ruled against them. Nevertheless, their actions were totally inappropriate. They have sinned gravely, both towards me and Hashem. The Days of Awe, during which every Jew is aroused to teshuva and repentance, are just around the corner. I have no doubt that these men will think over their what they have done, and will realize how gravely they have sinned. They will, of course, ask Hashem for forgiveness. But since their sin was directed towards me, it will be impossible to forgive them unless they approach me for forgiveness as well. I am concerned, however, that they will avoid coming to me, out of shame and regret. Therefore, I ‘left the door open’ for them by telling them immediately that I was open to reconciliation, and ask only that they accept the truth. Perhaps the forgiveness I have granted them – in advance – will allow their hearts to remain open to repentance. That is, after all, the only thing I truly desire.”
There are, says R’ Moshe Sternbuch Shlita, two distinct aspects of Shabbos. On the one hand, there is the Shabbos of rest and relaxation; of song, hearty meals, and time with friends. On the other hand, there is the complex side of Shabbos: The laws, the details, the rigidity which (under rare circumstances) says it’s necessary to allow one’s house to burn down rather than to extinguish a fire on Shabbos. The Shabbos full of halachic minutiae, which the Talmud aptly describes as “mountains hanging on a hair.”
The Jews that left Egypt were a broken nation. They were broken in spirit by their having descended to the very depths of depravity. And they were broken physically by the bondage. This was a time to uplift their spirits by giving them a taste of the beauty and sweetness of Shabbos, which is what Moshe Rabbeinu taught them in Marah.
It was only after their first Yom Kippur, when they had achieved full repentance for their sins, and were no longer brokenhearted and dejected, that Moshe felt confident enough to reveal to them the harsher more exacting side of Shabbos. As R’ Yosef Chaim realized, shame and dejection, natural outgrowths of sin, can actually stilt one’s growth, and prevent a person from accepting opportunities to move on. It was only after Yom Kippur that Moshe chose to teach them “the rest of the story.”
How crucial a lesson this is for parents and educators! Occasional criticism and even punishment are necessities in helping others to grow. Yet if we criticize and reproach to the point that there’s nothing left to feel good about, instead of helping others grow, we’re actually just digging them deeper into the hole. “If I’m that bad then there’s really no hope, so I might as well just give up now…” The greatest opportunities for growth come at the point when, just like after Yom Kippur, one feels positive and hopeful about himself and his potential. Always remember: If you don’t leave the door open, nobody’s going to come through it.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week’s publication has been sponsored by Mrs. Jennifer Hoffmann, in loving memory of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Barney and Judy Davidoff, may their souls rest in peace.