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Home » Balak, Economy, Environment, Life Is Beautiful

Balak: Shabbat and the Week

Submitted by on July 14, 2019 – 1:01 amNo Comment | 109 views

Shabbat is a twenty-five-hour break from the world. It is a wonderful time to unplug and relax. We enjoy quality time with children, family, and friends. We luxuriate in endeavors of the soul such as song, contemplation, study, prayer, and discussion. Unplugging from our phone’s constant pinging, our constant attraction to social media, and our constant compulsion to extraversion, can’t be bad.

Yet, the moment Shabbat is out, Havdalah has been chanted and the candle’s flame has been doused in the goblet’s remains, we call out Shavua Tov (or in Yiddish, A Gute Voch), and the otherworldly serenity disappears. The instant Shabbat is over, we run to our phones to reconnect. Why do so many rush into the frenzy of the week? Why can’t we let Shabbat linger just a little while longer? Can’t we stay unplugged?

I acknowledge that this isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for many. They shout Shavua Tov, and they rush off into their week. Why, what’s the rush? And why do we call out Shavua Tov, what is so good about the weekday? If Shabbat’s serenity was sacred, what makes the weekday so good?

The answer is found in this week’s Parshah. When Balak opened his mouth to curse the Jews, a string of pearls, wonderful words of praise, came out instead. One of those awesome praises went like this: “iniquity does not gaze at Jacob and [G-d] sees no toil in Israel.”[1]

The Jewish people serve G-d in two modes, the weekday mode of Jacob and the Shabbat mode of Israel.

The Weekday Jacob
During the week, we are plugged in—completely immersed in the corporeal material world. Whether we spend our day in highbrow corporate offices or the cutthroat world of retail, whether we earn our living through the toil of our hands or the property of our minds, we are in Jacob mode.

In Hebrew, Jacob is Yaakov. The first letter of Yaakov is yud, a letter synonymous with G-d’s name. The rest of the name spells akev, which means the heel or the bottom of the foot. The purpose of the week is to bring the sanctity of G-d down to the lowest level—to a heel that treads on soil.

We achieve this through prayer when we wrestle with our wandering mind and struggle to bring it back. As the mind agonizes over the day’s challenges, the soul infuses us with trust in G-d. As the heart worries about our financial position, the soul sustains us with faith and fills us with joy. The journey of prayer is one in which we draw the holiness of our soul into our very lowest concerns; our proverbial heel.

After prayer, we emerge into the world and immerse ourselves in our day. The purpose is once again to bring holiness to the heel, but this time the heel is not within, it is the world beyond. As we walk the streets and think about the Torah passage that we studied at home, the street becomes holy. When we engage in business and are tempted to cut corners, but remember that G-d is watching and wants us to be honest, our place of business becomes holy. When we meet an acquaintance and use the opportunity to share a Torah thought, to offer advice, a smile, or a listening ear, we bring holiness to our encounters.

These are the inner reasons for our weekday excursions into the unholy materiality of this world. We don’t go out into the world to make a living. We go out into the world to infuse it with life. It is not easy to remain connected all day long with the aspirations that infused us during prayer. Yet, because we work hard at it, we prevail over iniquity. As Balak said, “Iniquity does not get to gaze upon Jacob.” If we live our lives as a Jacob, determined to bring the yud, the divine presence, into the akev, our heel, iniquity doesn’t catch up with us.

This doesn’t mean it is easy. It takes a great deal of effort. It not for naught that Jacob is called, Yaakov Avdi, Jacob my servant. As the servant toils to serve the master, so do we, in weekday Jacob mode, toil to serve G-d in an environment that is otherwise foreign to G-d. But because we prevail, our excursion into the week is good. This explains why we call out Shavua Tov as the week begins.

The Israel Shabbat
Then comes Shabbat. After a week of intense discipline and constant toil, we get to pull the plug and shift gears. As the candles are kindled on Friday night, a peaceful calm descends over the world and we feel ourselves shifting within. We are no longer on the outside yearning to look in. We are suddenly on the inside; luxuriating and exulting in the ecstasy and sanctity of our souls.

On Shabbat, everything changes. When we pray, we aren’t consumed with the worries of the week. It is Shabbat and we are unplugged. We aren’t thinking about financial woes or social pressures. Instead, we are thinking about G-d. We take a break from the worries and we luxuriate. What a happy time. What a peaceful escape. Shabbat isn’t a toil; it isn’t hard work. It is peace.

As Balak said, “G-d sees no toil in Israel.” On Shabbat, we shift to Israel mode and Israel doesn’t need to struggle to connect with G-d. For Israel, the connection comes easily. In Hebrew, Israel is yisrael. If you break the word into two, you get the Hebrew words, shir e-l, sing with G-d. On Shabbat, prayer is not an effort, it is a song. On Shabbat, we don’t run down the street; we dance in the street. It is a time of joy. The soul exults. The heart is replenished. We unplug from the world and sing with G-d.

The Bridge
Why do we need Shabbat? On the one hand, Shabbat is a reward for our efforts during the week—it is the product and culmination of our workweek. On the other hand, Shabbat fortifies us for the week ahead. More than an escape from our weeklong mission of infusing the world with holiness, Shabbat serves to fortify us for our weeklong mission. We unplug and escape from worldly immersion so that we can return to it after Shabbat. Without Shabbat, we would suffer burnout. Shabbat gives us the strength to succeed.

This is perhaps the inner reason for why many feel the tug of the week—to check our newsfeed and receive our updates— the moment Shabbat is out. The mind rushes from Shabbat because it suffers from FOMO and wants to catch up. But the soul allows and even encourages this headlong rush because once Shabbat is over there is no reason to remain secluded from the world. Once fortified with holiness, there is no reason to delay our mission. G-d placed in the world to uplift it, not to escape it.

This explains why the very people who rush to embrace their weekday Jacob mode, sing a Havdalah song on their way to their phones. The song is comprised of Torah passages that are addressed to Jacob and it begins with the words, “Have no fear my servant Jacob.” They run to their phones with excitement, so why do they cry have no fear? What are they afraid of?

Jacob is about to embark on a week of spiritual toil and after the ecstasy of Shabbat, the soul is wary of returning to the world. It yearns to complete its mission, but it worries lest it becomes tainted by worldliness. We, therefore, sing a hymn, an ode to the soul that says, Jacob my loyal servant; fear not. The week ahead is filled with challenge and toil, but it is, therefore, also filled with opportunity.[2]

 

[1] Numbers 22:21. We translated this verse differently from Rashi.

[2] This essay is based on Likutei Torah, Bamidbar, pp. 71-72.

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