October 7, 1999
Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
First, I thought to myself, how would he know that feeling? Only a rabbi knows what it takes to survive the holidays. I then thought that he must be a Marrano rabbi who is hiding his true identity by claiming to be a pastor.
So, fascinated with his comment, I inquired what, exactly, he meant. He said: "You really had an onslaught of holidays over the past few weeks. That certainly is a heavy dosage of synagogue attendance for your members, and when they are in synagogue that much, they might be tempted to take out destructive frustrations on their rabbi."
He then went on to say: "In our religion, we don't have such an intensive holiday period, so my parishioners don't see that much of me. It certainly is safer to be a pastor than a rabbi. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that pastors live longer than rabbis."
He concluded his call with good advice: "Take a long vacation and don't let your members know where you are. You need the rest."
My pastor friend isn't the only one wise enough to dispense such sound advice. Actually, this week's Torah reading teaches the same lesson. The Torah recounts that creation ended on the seventh day, and God rested, stating: "And the heavens and earth and all they host were completed. And on the seventh day God finished His work which He made; and He rested on the seventh day from all of His work which He made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He rested from all His work, which God created to do" (Genesis 2:1-3).
These verses, which constitute an integral part of the Friday-night liturgy and kiddush service, seem to contradict themselves. Don't the words, "on the seventh day God finished His work," imply that God created something on the seventh day itself? Wasn't the seventh day supposed to be a day of total rest, when no creation was to take place?
The great contemporary rabbinic scholar Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik suggests that, with the assistance of the Midrash, the answer is apparent. The Midrash explains that God utilized two distinct types of creation. The first was called briah. This creative power built through destruction, by ripping down and building anew. The Midrash describes this process as one in which worlds were rearranged and destroyed, thus releasing tremendous energy.
But then came Shabbat, involving a totally different type of creative force. Now God used ytzirah, a positive force that represents rest, harmony and causality. Suddenly, everything found its place in the world, and Shabbat marked the end of briah and the initiation of ytzirah. It was on the seventh day that "God finished His work," finished using the forces of briah, and instituted the restful, nondestructive creative process known as ytzirah.
Shabbat, therefore, teaches us much more than just physical rest from the frustrations and destructive components involved in a hard week of work. Rather, it challenges us to be creators who know the secret power of ytzirah. Man must improve the world by acting positively rather than by destroying in order to build. Shabbat offers the Jew the inspiration to be a yotzer all week long.
Perhaps because he recognized the need for the type of creative rest that defines the Sabbath, the brilliant Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha-Am, once remarked, "More than the Jews keep the Sabbath, has the Sabbath [observance] kept the Jews [alive]."
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.