Secret to our immortality
Revolutionary ideas are exciting. Those who act in accordance with these ideas are motivated and enthused, but when they lose their lustre, adherents fall away to their own detriment.
One of the most revolutionary Jewish ideas is the gift of Shabbat. This is poignantly expressed in the following Talmudic account, which tells the story of the first translation of the Torah into Greek, in the third century BCE. It says the translators, who were Jewish sages, made certain deliberate changes because they thought a literal translation wouldn’t be understood by a universal audience. One alteration was made to the account of creation. The verse in Genesis reads, “On the seventh day, G-d finished His work of creation.” They translated it as, “On the sixth day, G-d finished His work of creation.”
They made this change because we would have expected the Torah to tell us that Hashem finished his work on the sixth day. Why indeed does the Torah say that Hashem finished his work on the seventh? Because, as our sages understood, there was an act of creation on the seventh day, but what G-d created wasn’t material, it was rest, serenity, peace, holiness – the day of Shabbat. The sages realised that in a world that valued only incessant productivity, the Greeks wouldn’t understand that the absence of physical work on the seventh day – sacred rest – was just as much a part of creation as tangible things like earth and oceans. Indeed, they branded Shabbat rest as laziness and a backward idea in which the Jew “wastes” one seventh of their lives. Ironically, for all the enduring achievements of the ancient Greeks, they eventually vanished from the world. Because civilizations, like individuals, will eventually collapse from fatigue.
The revolutionary gift of Shabbat is not only in the immediate spiritual, emotional, and mental benefits to us, our families, and our communities, but it’s the single biggest guarantee of our survival. As Ahad Ha’am, the secular Jewish philosopher, observed, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
In this week’s parsha, we read how Avraham is chosen because he’ll instruct his children in the ways of Hashem, and Rashi comments on the verse as follows, “We learn from this that whoever raises a righteous son is considered as though he does not die.” Indeed, when our children live with the values and practices we impart, we achieve immortality.
I remember hearing from the American senator and vice-presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, his motivation for Shabbat observance in spite of the immense challenges it placed on his chosen career. He said that though faith and history prove Hashem’s providence and assurance of Jewish survival, it remains a personal choice for each of us whether we and our families will be a part of that eternity. He was choosing to do what he could to ensure that his family remained a part of this eternal miracle story.
This Shabbat, we have a chance to unite with Jews around the globe in observing or enhancing our observance of Shabbat. It’s an opportunity to reclaim the revolutionary spirit of Shabbat; emulate our father, Avraham, in sharing this gift with our children; and do our bit to remain a part of an eternal nation and achieve “immortality”, an important and clear response to those who seek our destruction.