Our universe is currently suffering the impact of two pandemics. One is a viral infection, COVID-19 causing Flu like symptoms and possibly severe respiratory issues. The second is a pandemic of mass hype and fear. Obviously, according to Jewish law, we are required to protect life at all cost even if it is just a remote possibility. But clearly the mass hysteria is not helping. I believe this weeks Torah portion can help guide us.
This week we hear how Moses responded after the first mass hysteria hit the Jewish nation. A mere forty days after receiving the Ten Commandments from G-d Himself, panic breaks out and the Jews create a golden calf to worship.
Moses then ascends Mt. Sinai once again for forty days to beg forgiveness for his people. Our portion then begins with the gathering (Vayakhel) of the populace to one of their most important meetings ever.
Moses calls all the Jews together and begins a major speech. “… Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of sabbaths to G‑d…” Following that, are the commandments to build the sanctuary from which we learn the practical laws of keeping shabbat; the 39 prohibitions.
At this momentous occasion, why did Moses feel the need to remind them of keeping Shabbat?
Straight from his quarantine on the mountain, there were many other topics that could have been stressed to the Jewish people such as repentance or punishment for their grave sin. Yet, the first thing on his mind was to make sure they remembered the fourth commandment of shabbat and how to keep it. What was Moses trying to convey?
The Jews had seen miracles that for generations after even the most righteous would never experience. They had every proof of G-d’s existence and Moses’ responsibility they could need. Yet when anxiety and hysteria hit they lost faith. Moses knew that no further information or miracles would help stop a repeat. He therefore was trying to convey a method to get to the root of the pandemonium and prevent it for the future.
The 39 prohibitions that Moses taught in this weeks Parsha are not prohibitions in a negative sense, rather they are the guide to teach how to have the most sublime experience of shabbat.
A child going into the water for their first swimming lesson might ask why can’t they bring their phone in with them, they might want to wear sneakers or do other activities in the pool. The responsible parent will tell them that there is a place and time for those activities but swimming lessons are not that time. The child might be upset and give up on swimming lessons but they will then never have the pleasure of joining in pool related activities.
Shabbat teaches us the power of balancing caution while living a normal life. One of the hardest parts of living with anxiety is learning how to disrupt a negative train of thoughts and live with the moment.
When Shabbat comes in we must enter the mindset that all the work of six days is now done, at least for the next 25 hours. At this moment we are exactly where we are meant to be. Like the rules of a good chess game, the 39 prohibitions help liberate our consciousness from the pushing and pulling of our minds and remind our souls that we have a body. Moses was telling the Jewish people, keeping a shabbat mindset will stop anxiety and pandemonium for the future. It will put you back on track to focusing on what really needs to be done.
We must be prepared, clean and proactive. We must do all precautionary measures to protect ourselves and others. But we cannot let the pandemic creep into our souls and make us afraid to live.
– Rabbi Ari Rubin
Chabad Centre for Jewish Life in North Queensland- a division of Chabad of RARA