Friday, October 27, 2017

Parashat Lekh Lekha: Shabbat

A Message for Parashat Lekh Lekha 2017*
Click here to view as PDF.

Several years ago, the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks penned his memoir, On the Move: A Life. The cover photo of a young Sacks mounted atop a motorcycle appropriately depicted the life described therein. Sacks wrote that his life was driven by boundless passion and energy, and lived in a constant flux between physical and intellectual activity.[1]

Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, Sacks veered from the path of belief and religion during his teenage years. He moved away from his native England at a relatively young age, and rarely again participated in even the cultural dimensions of Judaism. 

In mid-August 2015, two weeks before his death, Sacks published a moving article for The New York Times. He contrasted his final thoughts and experiences to those of the rest of his life. He reflected upon one particular Shabbat meal that he experienced in the past with a cousin. He described his feelings at that time: “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything.” Shifting his focus to his present situation, Sacks wrote, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer…I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”[2] Winding down a life of constant movement, Oliver Sacks’s spent his final thoughts in appreciation of the importance of rest. 

* * * *

I often imagine that the title of Avraham Avenu’s memoir might have similarly been On the Move. It began with his family’s move to Canaan (Bereshit 11:31), God’s subsequent command that he “go forth (lekh lekha)” from his homeland (12:1) and his later descent to Egypt due to famine (12:10). He then proceeded to the beat of movement, enduring the life of a nomad who was commanded to “Rise, walk about the land” (13:17), “Walk in My presence and be blameless” (17:1) and to again “Go forth (lekh lekha) to the land of Moriah” (22:2). 

In the midst of Avraham’s life of constant movement, there is one particular experience of inactivity that stands out: 

And as the sun was about to set, a deep slumber fell upon Avram and now a great dark dread came falling upon him… (15:12)

Avraham spent much of his legendary covenant with God, the berit bein ha-betarim, in a state of complete inactivity. At the very moment that God described the future of Am Yisrael, He unexplainably placed Avraham into an uncharacteristic state of immobility. 

* * * *

Avraham was the forbearer of a nation. His life planted the seeds from which the future flowers of Am Yisrael would blossom. He thrived on motion, seeking to establish, create, and form a future movement. As God informed Avraham about the future of his descendants, however, all of that activity came to halt. Avraham understood that this was not a time for movement, nor an opportunity for implementation. It was, instead, a period of solemn contemplation and reflection. It was a taste of the future fruits of his labors.

The whole story from Abraham to Moses is nothing but God’s creation of a nation to be the bearer of the Sabbath. (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch)[3]

The “absolute stop” of Shabbat was inappropriate during the generations leading up to the establishment of Am Yisrael. The Avot shared a mission of creation, which called for a commitment to action. The eventual birth of the nation, however, brought forth the necessary opportunity to rest. It presented us with a renewed covenant with God – Shabbat. It introduced the once-a-week challenge of pausing all activity in order to contemplate the issues that matter most. 

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

* In honor of The Shabbos Project, taking place this weekend. For more information, see:

[1] Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York, NY, 2015).

[2] Oliver Sacks, “Sabbath,” The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2015.

[3] The Hirsch Chumash: Shemos (Nanuet, NY, 2005), pg. 346.