When I was a little boy I wasn't convinced that Shabbat was the last day of the week. My heart told me that it was the first. I, of course, knew the story of the Six Days of Creation, and how God "rested" on the Seventh, but it was not the way I experienced Shabbat: I saw little of my father zt"l during the week, but on Shabbat; he was there. We spent hours at the Friday evening Shabbat table playing "Twenty Questions" on the Bible, and hours the following meal studying the 613 Commandments in different orders. He learned with his children the rest of the day, giving each of us a bowl of special Shabbat treats to eat while waiting for our time with him. Shabbat energized me. I usually ended Shabbat looking forward to life. Every Shabbat was a "beginning" of the rest of the week. I didn't have to wait for Shabbat to relax and "have a break." I used Shabbat to live my week.
Shabbat continued to be a "First" day when my children were younger and I could connect with them as my father had with me. My children are grown, but Shabbat continues to generate new energy and exciting ideas for the week that follows. I guess I'm still not so certain that Shabbat is the last, rather than the first, day of the week.
We derive most of the Shabbat laws from the construction of the Mishkan, so it's fair to wonder how the people involved in the Tabernacle's beginnings used their Shabbat. Did they "need a break" from all the work? Did they resent having to place their project on hold for a day? They must have been desperate to finish; it was their sign of being forgiven for the Golden Calf. "We want to finish already!"
This week's portion, describing the actual construction of the Mishkan, begins with Shabbat. Moshe doesn't present Shabbat only as the day that follows six days of work; he teaches Shabbat as the beginning. He had to, because, "What happens when the project is finished?" How long would their excitement last? We never find the Children of Israel joyfully gathering at their awesome building once it was consecrated. The First Temple, soon after its completion, disappeared as a popular tourist destination. No wonder I was often counseled, when a pulpit rabbi, "Never pay off your building's mortgage!" We strive for completion and success, for the "last day of the week," and forget to ask, "What's next?"
Moshe knew the excitement wouldn't last. The people needed a way to use their accomplishments to inspire them to move forward with excitement. He chose Shabbat as the first day of the week. Shabbat was not a day on which they couldn't finish their work. It was the day they generated the necessary excitement to look forward to the coming week. "These are the things God has commanded you to do (Exodus 35:1)." You were created to do, to accomplish, to soar, to build worlds: "La'asot," as in "The Lord completed the work He had done, asher asa. (Genesis 2:1)"
No wonder Shabbat is always associated with Teshuva: Each week we are trying to restore Shabbat as a beginning, "L'dorotam," for all generations, for eternity. We are still grasping for the real power of Shabbat as the First day. Perhaps this will be the week...
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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