1 March 2013
19 Adar 5773
Would Shabbat Have Helped Oscar Pistorius?
I heard an NPR discussion this week about Oscar Pistorius, the extraordinary Paralympic champion sprinter and Olympic competitor whose life and athletic story are inspiring, yet who has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. What caught my attention on NPR was a comment made by a guest analyst in reference to the broader issue of the tragic “fall” of public “heroes.” The analyst suggested that this case illustrates a broader problem and, to paraphrase, he said, “This is another example of a situation where there is such an enormous gap between a person’s pursuit of excellence and achievement in one area of his life and his competence or well-being in other areas of his life.”
If we look carefully at the competitive and often cut-throat culture in which many of our children grow up in and many of us work and live, these questions come to mind: Achievement—to what end and at what costs? Can we pursue excellence in certain areas of our life while not losing our moral compass or our sense of balance? How can we do this while simultaneously strengthening personal integrity, character, moral values, and a sense of responsibility to others and the world?
Perhaps, one approach to these questions can be found in the Torah’s vision of Shabbat, which appears again in this week’s Torah portion. After completing the extensive instructions for how the Israelites undertake the holy, creative task of constructing the mishkan (tabernacle), God gives Moshe a seeming out-of-context reminder to observe Shabbat (Exodus 31:13): “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘Ach et shabbatotai tishmoru (But/however/only make sure you keep my Sabbaths)’ . . .” Why modify this command with this two-letter word “ach,” which means “but/however/only?” Rashi explains that this word comes to moderate the zeal and enthusiasm with which the Israelites would build the mishkan: “Even though you will be consumed with your enthusiastic pursuit of this holy work, you still may not put off the Shabbat.” In other words, we must put limits and boundaries on our pursuit of excellence and achievement, even in an area of divinely ordained, sacred work.
What a profound concept! Shabbat is the ultimate reminder that neither we nor our pursuits, even when we feel called to them by God, are the end-all, be-all’s of the world or even of our own lives. We live in relationship with things beyond us, outside of us, which should give us a sense of obligation and responsibility. These might include God, moral values, family, community, tradition, or other sacred obligations in our lives.
Shabbat comes in part to help us avoid falling into narcissistic pursuits of excellence and achievement in ways that can be morally and spiritually corrupting. What an extraordinary gift to the Jewish People and to humanity!
However you celebrate or observe it, how does Shabbat remind you of what is important in your life?
Rabbi Marc Baker