Parshat Vayakhel: Give it a rest

Parshat Vayakhel: Give it a rest

Co-founder and Halachic advisor, Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School, Paramus, Orthodox

In my 30 odd years in the rabbinate I have listened to many great speakers, rabbis from all over the world. One of the speeches that I listened to was on the topic “Cloning in halachah.” It was given by Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, a former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and the author of the first volume ever on Jewish medical ethics.

The lecture was very well attended by intellectuals and many doctors. The rabbi was elderly and tired. We were the last stop on his U.S. speaking tour. It seemed then that he gave a very long rambling talk without focusing on the topic. Just when the audience was getting restless and bored, he started talking about Shabbat and the source of the 39 labors prohibited on Shabbat which is found in this week’s Torah portion. It was seemingly off topic. He asked a very logical question that woke us up and electrified us:

“Why did God command us to celebrate a day on which nothing was created? Why did he not command us to celebrate the ‘big bang’ on Sundays, the day on which the entire universe was created? Now, that’s an auspicious day for a party! Why didn’t he tell us to celebrate on Friday to commemorate the creation of mankind, the peak of creation, and the animals? Why did God command us to celebrate the day that lacks creation?”

His answer was simple and powerful, “Hashem could have continued to create endlessly but stopped. Not because He needed to rest; God does not need to rest. He stopped in order to teach us an extremely important lesson: that showing mastery is not only through creating but also through withdrawing and ceasing to create.”

To illustrate, he gave the example of a store owner who keeps his shop open 24/7 and does not have the self-control to close. Such an owner, he said, does not so much own the store as much as the store actually owns him.

I knew a pharmacist like that, who was always working and never had time to spend with his wife and family and died early of a heart attack. We see this concept in literature also in the character of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein, who built his mythical creature but eventually could not control it. That is exactly the symbolism of the name of God, ‘Shaddai,’ that is written on the back of the parchment of every mezuzah; as the midrash expands the acronym — “zeh sheamar leolamo dai,” the One who told His world to stop.

God’s mastery of the world is seen by his showing that He can create but as importantly He knows when to stop creating, and that is what He wants to teach us. “Create for me a sanctuary, but stop creating on Shabbat,” He tells us, teaching us that sometimes it is better not to create. Rabbi Jacobovits applied this to cloning and other dubious scientific firsts which are embarked upon without examining the ethical and moral ramifications and the effects on future generations.

A simpler and more day-to-day lesson for us and our children that I think God is teaching through the concept of Shabbat is that of self-control and deferred gratification, an attribute which is one of the main keys to success in all aspects of life. One of the most successful behavioral experiments which studies deferred gratification was conducted in 1972, by psychologist Walter Mischel, and was called the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

The original experiment took place at the Bing Nursery School located at Stanford University, using as subjects children of ages four to six. The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a marshmallow was placed on a table. The children could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Dr. Mischel observed that some would “cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they couldn’t see the tray, others started kicking the desk, or tugged on their pigtails, or stroked the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal,” while others would simply eat the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left.

More than 600 children took part in the experiment. A minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Age was a major determinant of deferred gratification.

Follow-up studies showed that pre-school children, who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent; it also correlated with higher SAT scores. This characteristic, the ability to defer gratification, remained with the person for life.

“I need to finish this; I need to go to the mall; I need to travel, etc.” — defer your gratification until after Shabbat and that self-control will make you a more successful person.

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