February 18, 2022 / 17 Adar I, 5782
#21 KI TISSA
even when work calls us back
dwell in mindfulness
There are many dramatic passages in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, including the vivid description of Moses bringing down the tablets from Mount Sinai (twice!), and his disgust and compassion for the community’s creation of a golden calf in his extended absence.
There is also an expanded description of Shabbat in verses 12 through 17 in Chapter 31. But the verse that is calling to me the most as I prepare to welcome in my last Shabbes in Gandoca for awhile before setting out next week to further explore the wild lands of Costa Rica, is this one (Exodus 34:21):
שֵׁ֤שֶׁת יָמִים֙ תַּעֲבֹ֔ד וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תִּשְׁבֹּ֑ת בֶּחָרִ֥ישׁ וּבַקָּצִ֖יר תִּשְׁבֹּֽת׃
Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor;
you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time.
“Even at plowing time and harvest time,” when timing is so critical to complete the work —even when we are at the height of engagement in important and timely work, and work that is so dear to us and necessary— even then, we are encouraged to stop what we are doing and immerse ourselves in a day of mindfulness, a day of complete rest from the vital work of daily life.
These days, I have been reflecting on how much of my life experience and wisdom gleaned over the years rests within my physical body. And through the frame of this week’s parashat, I am reflecting on how much Shabbes lives deep within my bones and my organs, my muscles and my joints, my tissues and my cells, and every part of my physical and spiritual being. It is no longer really a question for me to observe Shabbes or not, it is now an integral part of me and lives completely within me.
The rhythm of Shabbes as described in the above verse (Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor), has become deeply ingrained within my own physical body. Some weeks, I have had the idea that I could work on my writing or another project on a Saturday that I have not had enough time for during the week. But when the sun begins its descent on Friday afternoon, my whole body is pulled toward disengagement, and it actually overrides any ideas for working that I might have had. The tasks of the week just need to wait another day. The body rules.
There are times that I struggle to set aside inner conflict, but resolve to take it up after Shabbes. Often, I am grateful to find that the spaciousness of Shabbes has melted away what had felt like an almost insurmountable weight just the day before. After a day of dwelling in gratitude and awe, life looks and feels differently afterwards. After letting go of clutching so tightly to suffering, there is a lightness in my body, along with feeling a greater capacity for understanding and compassion for others and within myself.
Breaking that cycle of busyness and engagement one day each week has become an important commitment to my physical and spiritual well-being. Honoring time as sacred and my body as sacred has become life-sustaining for me. Experiencing my body within the cathedral of time is so precious and exhilarating for me.
When I arrived to live with a family in the small village of Gandoca five months ago —the only American and the only Jew in this village or in any of the neighboring villages, as far as I can tell— I was a bit tentative about how openly I felt comfortable welcoming in Shabbat each week. But my body was not waiting for my mind to decide. Friday came around, I put on the white linen garment I wear every Shabbes, and lit two small citronella tea lite candles on the table we eat our meals at out on the front porch. (The citronella had the added benefit of keep mosquitoes away!) Everyone was very respectful and encouraging. The following week, I bought a bottle of wine and made challah with the children. The wine was a big treat and everyone, of course, loved the challah! Every day the following week, children all over the village would come up to me asking when “Shabbat Shalom” was coming again!
Each week since then, friends and extended family have come to gather on our porch on Friday evenings to light candles, drink wine or grape juice, and delight in the sweetness of freshly-baked challah. I’ve printed out Spanish translations of Marcia Falk’s interpretive versions of the Shabbat blessings, so that everyone can participate. As I recite the blessings in Hebrew, everyone else recites them in Spanish.
Along with everyone who celebrates the majesty and mystery of all of creation, my whole body delights in the immense joy, deep holiness, and sacred rest that Shabbes brings … even at plowing time and harvest time.