Second Soul

March 2, 2010

Second Soul: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus)

There is a mystical tradition that states that a Jew gains a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul, on Shabbat. For those 25 hours, we are doubly spiritually charged, or at least potentially so.

Although Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi and commentator, is not the author of this idea, his comment on a well-known verse within Parashat Ki Tisa takes us in a similar direction. The familiar “V’Shamru” song/prayer is lifted directly from a section within Ki Tisa — one of many moments of revelation during which God mentions the idea of, and the commandment regarding, observing Shabbat. In describing the first week of creation, God says, “uvayom hashvi’i shavat vayinafash” — on the seventh day God ceased working (shavat, from which we get the word Shabbat) and was refreshed.

It is that last word that is most interesting. The Hebrew is vayinafash, a verb from the root nefesh, meaning “soul.” The Jewish Publication Society translates the word as “and was refreshed,” as if something happened to God, in a passive way. By stopping, God simply was refreshed. In his “The Five Books of Moses,” scholar Everett Fox translates the word as “paused for breath,” suggesting a second, active action. God both actively stopped working and actively paused to take in, as it were, a much-needed breath. The old and venerable Hertz Chumash translates it more simply as “He rested,” again suggesting an action taken by God in addition to ceasing work.

What did God do on the seventh day? Better yet, what is God trying to tell us about our experience of Shabbat by using this word vayinafash to reminisce about that initial Shabbat of creation? Here is where Rashi comes in. He first says that vayinafash means “God rested.” But then he explains the meaning of that rest. “God restored God’s own soul and breath by taking a calming break from the burden of the labor.” By using this anthropomorphism, Rashi invites us to imagine a God with a soul, a God with needs, a God who could be, as it were, burdened.

But within this comment, Rashi is not only describing God. Rashi also, and perhaps principally, speaks to the human goal for Shabbat and in doing so puts an active spin on the mystical tradition of the double soul.

Our tradition speaks of many “doubles” on Shabbat. The Israelites received a double portion of manna, represented by our two loaves of challah. That double portion simply came to them. It was a gift from above, with no conditions or strings attached. Rashi’s read on vayinafash suggests that our second soul does not come without its price, or at least its effort. In an ironic twist, we need to “work” to earn our pause from work. Only by actively stepping away from those things that define our non-Shabbat world, our Sunday through Friday weeks, do our souls get the boost we so sorely need.

I am a Conservative rabbi. The central vehicle through which I achieve and experience Shabbat is the concept of restraint and prohibition. Feeling bound by the structure and stricture of halachah, or Jewish law, I enter Shabbat via the rabbinic definitions of prohibited labor, which were set up both as a living commentary on the words of the Torah and also as a way of standardizing practice among Jews. Those rules are a fundamental guideline for my observance of Shabbat. At the same time, I acknowledge the multiple paths within Jewish life and the many people within the Jewish community who do not feel bound by the fundamentals of Jewish law.

I firmly believe that Rashi’s message speaks to every Jew, transcending the category of “prohibited labor” that is resonant for some, but not for others. There is an important personal, individual aspect to Shabbat as well. Each of us knows which things in our lives most anchor us to the feeling of work and most burden us. Each of us has activities, habits, behaviors that, though they play important roles in our lives, need not intrude on each day.

Each of us is aware of the things we ought to step back from in order to imbue our own religious experiences with Judaism’s message of 24/6 as opposed to 24/7. Each of us, then, has the blessing, and weekly opportunity, to craft a Shabbat of restraint, withholding, ceasing and active resting that has the best chance of restoring our neshamah, our nefesh, so that we can imitate God … vayinafash.

Whatever denominational category does or does not inspire you; wherever you place yourself on the spectrum of Jewish observance; whatever your personal theology says about your belief in a commanding God, spend this Shabbat considering what you most need to not do for that second soul to descend upon you Friday night, ascending heavenward on the wisps of the Havdalah flames Saturday night, leaving you restored and ready for the week to come.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am (tbala.org), a Conservative congregation in West Los Angeles.

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