Thursday, 28 February 2008


In collaboration with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the Israelites on the day after Yom Kippur, to repeat to them the commandment of Shabbat. The passage raises several questions, especially in its use of the passive in the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." In its explanations, the Sicha touches on one of the greatest paradoxes of the life of faith. If G-d is the source of all blessings, why work in order to live? And if we do work, how can we avoid the thought that it is our labor alone that produces material results? We seem torn between absolute passivity and the denial of G-d's involvement in the world. The Rebbe develops the important concept of "passive labor" in which this contradiction is resolved, and a new understanding of the inner meaning of Shabbat emerges.

1. The Assembly

The Sidra of Vayakhel begins in the following way: "And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: 'These are the words which the L-rd has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the L-rd..'"

This raises several questions and points of detail, some of which are mentioned by the commentators.

Firstly, why is the word "assembled" ( Vayakhel) used? The more usual expression would be, "And Moses spoke to all the congregation," as indeed we find several verses later, in the context of the donations for the Sanctuary.

Secondly, the passage says, "These are the words which the L-rd has commanded," but it does not specify what they are. Most commentators take it as referring to the offerings for the building of the Sanctuary, but this is difficult to maintain. For before these offerings are spoken of, the Torah repeats, "And Moses spoke to all the congregation," suggesting that this was the subject of a separate discourse. The implication would seem to be that the "words which the L-rd has commanded" refer to what immediately follows, namely the prohibition of work on the Shabbat. But this raises the further difficulty that the observance of the Shabbat had already been included amongst the Ten Commandments.

Thirdly, what is the significance of the repetitive phrase, shabbat shabbaton, translated in English as "a sabbath of solemn rest?"

Fourthly, Rashi, the Talmud, the Midrash1 and the Zohar2 all make the comment that this assembly took place on the morrow of Yom Kippur, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai (with the second tablets of stone). This suggests that there is a connection between the assembly and Yom Kippur, whose essence is, as its name implies, kippur, or atonement. This was the day when G-d said to Moses, "I have forgiven according to your word," which was the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. What, then, is the connection?

2. Passive Labor

As a first step towards answering these questions, we must consider the remarks of the commentators about the passive form of the verb in the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." Had it been in the active, "Six days shall you work," it would suggest an involvement or preoccupation with the work. The passive suggests that the work will be done, as it were, by itself. The Mechilta comments on this verse: "When Israel performs the will of the Al-mighty, their work is done for them by others." Literally, this refers to a blessing conferred by Heaven, but the comment can also be taken to indicate an attitude that the Jew should adopt in the course of his service towards G-d. It means that during the six days of his work, he should be occupied, but not preoccupied by the secular.

In the Psalms3 it is written: "If you will eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you." The Chassidic interpretation4 is that the labor in which man engages for his material needs (so that "you will eat") should be only "of your hands," an activity of the outer man, not an inward involvement. His thoughts and feelings must remain bound up with Torah and its commandments. Only then "will you be happy and it will be well with you." As the Sages say,5 "You will be happy-in this world-and it will be well for you-in the World to Come."

This interpretation can also be applied to the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." The passive form of the verb indicates that heart and mind are elsewhere-involved in the Torah-and only man's practical faculties are engaged in the work. And even they are concerned only to make the work a "vessel" for the blessings of G-d. This is what the Torah means when it says; "And the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all that you do." Man is not sustained by his own efforts, but through G-d's blessing. His work merely provides a natural channel for this blessing, and he must remember that it is no more than a channel. Though his hands prepare it, his eyes must remain focused on the source of the blessing.

Man should really not be allowed to work. For of G-d it is said, "I fill the heavens and the earth" and "The whole earth is full of His glory." The proper response to the ever-present nature of G-d would be to stand in absolute passivity. To do otherwise would be to be guilty of what the Rabbis called6 "making signs before the King," of the presumption of making one's presence felt. It is only because the Torah itself permits, indeed commands, us to work that it becomes legitimate; when it says, "Six days shall you work" and "The L-rd your G-d will bless you in all that you do."The Torah permits that which is necessary work. To go beyond that would be, in the first place, to show a lack of faith that human sustenance comes from G-d. And secondly, it would be to make one's presence felt in the face of G-d an act of rebellion.

3. The Meaning of "Labor"

In the light of this, it becomes difficult to understand the expression of the Psalms, "the labor of your hands." For the work of the Jew in the secular world is only as a preparation for G-d's blessing, and lacks an inner involvement. There is, however, a psychological principle7 that work which one enjoys is not tiring, whereas even a small effort towards what one does not enjoy is exhausting. The Jew, therefore, whose pleasures are spiritual, and whose engagement in the material world is forced upon him, finds it an exhaustion. Even though it is a positive command8 that "Six days you shall labor," the labor itself, however detached he is from it, distracts him from the spiritual, and is therefore felt to be a tiring labor.

4. The Double Shabbat

This, then, is the inner meaning of "Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest,"-the six days are a necessary preface to the seventh. For the Shabbat to be a day of solemn rest, it must be preceded by work, and the work itself must be passive, with the true focus of one's attention elsewhere. It is written,9 "On the Shabbat, a man should regard himself as if all his work were complete." If, during the six days, he had been preoccupied with material concerns, on the seventh day anxieties will invade him and he will not be able to clear his mind to "gaze at the glory of the King" in Torah and prayer. He has opened the door to distractions, and they will intrude upon his will. But if he has given his work its proper place during the week, the light of Shabbat will illuminate him, and it will be shabbat shabbaton-a Shabbat twice over. For Shabbat will then permeate his whole week,10 and when the day itself arrives it will have a double sanctity.

Our third question is therefore answered. And the second is also solved: Even though the observance of Shabbat as such had been previously commanded, the opening verses of Vayakhel explain how the spirit of Shabbat is achieved.

5. The Origin of Idolatry

The connection between the assembly of the Israelites, and the day it took place, on the morrow of Yom Kippur, can also now be understood. The commandment about the Shabbat was in itself the rectification of the sin of the Golden Calf. Rambam11 traces the origins of idolatry to the fact that Divine providence is channeled through natural forces and objects: "Precious fruits (are) brought forth by the sun, and. precious things. by the moon.''12 Although their worshippers recognized them as merely intermediaries, they attached divine significance to them. Their error was to regard them as objects of worship, whereas they are no more than the instruments of G-d, like "an ax in the hands of the hewer." At another level, the excessive preoccupation with business and the material world is also a form of idolatry.13 In the same way, it involves the error of attaching significance to what is no more than an intermediary or the channel of Divine blessing. His mental preoccupation is a form of bowing the head, of misplaced worship. Only when he sees his work for what it is, a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of G-d, will his work take the passive form and the focus of his thoughts be on G-d alone.

This is how idolatry-whether in its overt or its more subtle forms-is atoned. Six days of passive work, in the sense of mental detachment and the realization that human work is only an instrument of G-d, are the corrective for and the denial of the instincts of idolatry.

6. Passivity in the Spirit

This error and its correction exist on the spiritual as well as the material plane. In Pirkei Avot14 it is stated: "Do not be like servants who minister to their master on the condition of receiving a reward." It is possible to study and fulfill the Torah for the sake of the attendant spiritual pleasures. But this is to be motivated by reward. The highest service is to perform G-d's will for its own sake, unconditionally. And this is like the passive labor described above. It is labor because it is not done for the sake of pleasure. It is passive because such a man does not regard his spiritual achievements as the result of his own talents, but of the helping hand of Heaven. If he opens himself to G-d, however slightly, G-d responds and helps him along the way. This assistance comes even prior to the fulfillment of a command. Commenting on the verse in Job,15 "Who has come before Me that I should pay him?" the Rabbis say,16 "Who made Me a parapet without My making him the roof, who made Me a Mezuzah without My making him the house, who made Me Tzitzit without My making him the garment?" Passivity in the spiritual life means making oneself no more than a channel for the Divine response.

7. Assembly and Unity

Finally, we can now understand why our passage uses the verb "And Moses assembled" instead of "And Moses spoke."It was the day after Yom Kippur, when the sin of the Golden Calf, which had brought back into the world the spirit of impurity,17 was atoned for. The world was to be restored to its original state, as it was before the first sin. There was to be "one nation in the land," and the world was once again to become a private domain (reshut hayachid, literally, the "domain of the One") for the Unity of G-d. Therefore there had to be an "assembly" in which the people were gathered into a unity.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I pp. 187-192)