Minutes of Torah

Towards the end of my legal career, I noticed that I often defined my work life as simply, “busy!” It was the truest way to describe my experience of daily life for a long time. One might even say that “my heart was no longer in my work.”

Within all the busyness and running around, life often felt like it was passing me by in an unsatisfying blur of activity and short-lived accomplishments. I started to live for the weekends and especially for vacations. The work and people that I cared so much about often felt lost in the day-to-day flurry of getting things done.

The beginning of this week’s parashat Vayakhel (that we join this year with parashat Pekudei) offers an antidote to the alienation of busyness: Shabbat.

“Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord;….

You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

The instruction to observe Shabbat is dropped into the text at the precarious moment between the sin of the Golden Calf and the creation of the Mishkan. In between the fires of idol worship and the fires of creating a sanctuary, there is a silence that requires the Israelites to take a break. To kindle no fires.

Shabbat is one of Judaism’s most powerful, radically mindful inventions. Shabbat says rest is sacred. Shabbat says stop doing and just be. Even when it comes to building a holy sanctuary for the Divine, God says that the best gift is not any sacrifice, place, or ritual. It is time itself, or rather unstructured time. It is being ourselves, now, as we are, without adding anything extra.

Perhaps, we resist pausing from our busyness because we are afraid of facing ourselves and the rawness of who we are. The fear of emptiness keeps us busy. We stay busy for the adrenaline rush and the short bursts of excitement that the drama brings us. “The client loved it!” or “The deadline is met!” This distracts us from the dawning suspicion that our life means nothing, that all our efforts have not brought us any closer to real happiness.

It is not busyness per se that is the problem. Life will always be busy. The problem is when work becomes mindless, or an escape mechanism from life. In the Torah, the fact that we receive the strange commandment to observe Shabbat right in the middle of the Mishkan’s building process is a way to force us to take a breath. Shabbat helps us find ourselves and God and to remember that we are precious and loved, regardless of what we do or produce.

Shabbat also reminds us that when we return to work, we know how to do so mindfully. Unlike the utterly mindless creation of the Golden Calf in last week’s parasha — you remember: in popped the gold, out popped a calf — every movement in the creation of the Mishkan is done with attention, care, and with a full heart.

In parashat Vayakhel, the word “heart” is mentioned fourteen times in connection with all the ‘givings’ that the Israelites made for the building of the Mishkan. These people are working ‘wholeheartedly.’ They are putting love into every gift, every act of spinning, weaving, constructing, measuring, and finalizing. This is the essence of working mindfully.

What would it mean if we all worked this way, paying attention to everything we were doing with all our heart? When we give the gift of our attention to everything we are doing, whether sending email, saying hello to someone in an elevator, paying our bills, or eating our dinner, we touch the potential holy aspect that resides in our every act. We find the peaceful nature of Shabbat wherever we are.

The response to bringing our whole heart into our work pours energy back into everyday life when it starts to feel empty and hollow. It can transform “busyness” to “fullness.” This is illustrated in the last few verses of parashat Pekudei, which close the description of the Mishkan’s construction:

“And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Adonai filled the Mishkan.”

Just as God’s glory, God’s kavod, fills the new Mishkan, making it complete or whole, our lives are made ‘full’ through the connecting of our hearts fully to our work.

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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