Imagine you are on a train, traveling toward your destination. You look to your right and see a fellow passenger. Attempting to be friendly, you ask him where he’s heading. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know.” Confused, you ask again. He repeats, “I’m just riding the train. I don’t know where I’m going.” At this point, you begin to wonder if this guy is out of his mind. Who goes on a train without a destination in mind?
However, if you ask the average person on the street the same question, “Where are you going in life? What’s your ultimate destination?” – he will probably give you a similar answer. He’ll shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Now, if the absence of a defined destination for something as simple as a train ride is so clearly absurd, how can we fail to treat life in the same manner? Life, the most important journey we take, must surely require a clearly defined and meaningful destination.
The key to approaching this topic lies within the concept of Shabbos. And as Shabbos occupies one-seventh of our lives, and much of Judaism centers around its observance, let us delve into its inner meaning in order to gain a deeper understanding of this unique and beautiful day.
Shabbos As Fundamental
It is striking to consider how fundamental and central Shabbos is in Jewish thought and practice. Shabbos is included amongst the Aseres HaDibros, the Ten Commandments, which are viewed not only as uniquely important but as the root categories that contain all the other mitzvos (Rashi, Sh’mos 24:12). Furthermore, the punishment for desecrating Shabbos is not just death, but s’kilah (stoning), which, according to most opinions, is the most severe of the four death penalties.
When we consider whether or not someone is an observant Jew, we usually ask whether he or she is “shomer Shabbos,” Sabbath observant. Why is this the defining feature of religious observance? What makes Shabbos a root mitzvah, why is its punishment so severe, and why do we see it as the measuring stick for all of Torah observance? What is the secret of Shabbos?
Theme of the Day
Usually, when we have a specific time of k’dushah, a holy point in time, there is a unique positive act that we associate with it. On Rosh HaShanah, we blow the shofar; on Sukkos, we sit in the sukkah and we shake the lulav; on Chanukah, we light the menorah; on Purim, we read the Megillah; on Pesach, we have the Seder; and on Shavuos, we learn Torah. On Shabbos, though, we tend to think less about what we are meant to be doing and more about what we are not allowed to do. The isur m’lachah, the prohibition against creative work on Shabbos, dominates our focus. We can easily fall into the trap of associating Shabbos with only restrictions, leading to an unfortunately negative connotation. These prohibitions can take over the day, leaving us feeling restricted, limited, or even trapped.
A Taste of Olam HaBa
In an enigmatically cryptic manner, the Gemara (B’rachos 57a) compares Shabbos to Olam HaBa. The exact terminology is that Shabbos is “mei’ein Olam HaBa,” a taste of the World to Come. Once again, we are left to wonder: What is the deeper meaning of Shabbos?
This World and the Next
In order to answer these questions, we must first understand the natures of Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa, and their unique relationship:
Olam HaZeh, the world we live in, is the place of process. In this world, you choose who you will become; you have the ability to build, mold, and create yourself. Every single day presents you with a new opportunity to become greater than you were the day before. This world is therefore the place of movement and becoming, where we progress along our personal path of change and growth.
Olam HaBa, in contrast, is the place of being, where you experience everything that you have built in this life. No longer can we move or become, no longer can we build. Rather, we experience a static world, lacking both movement and process, where we enjoy everything that we created during our lives in this world.
The joy of this world is the ability to grow, to learn, and to become. The pain is that it is limited; we are only in this world for a short amount of time before we leave. The joy of the World to Come is the ecstatic pleasure of experiencing everything we have built during our lifetime. The pain is that it’s only that and nothing more. All the potential we failed to actualize will remain eternally so: potential.
This can be compared to a person who is given a pile of clay and one hour to mold it. During that hour, he can create anything he wants and impress any form he desires into the clay. After the hour, the clay is placed into the kiln, and whatever form he created during that hour will remain forever. So, too, we receive a lifetime in this world to mold ourselves. During our time here, we have the free will to create ourselves, to grow. Once we leave this world, we remain forever as the being that we created.
It is essential to understand that the reward in the World to Come is not merely an external reward, as in some “treat” given to you in exchange for the good deeds you performed. Rather, the reward is you, the consciousness and self that you created during your lifetime. As the Ramchal and the Nefesh HaChayim explain, when you die, your mind and consciousness are peeled away from your physical body, almost like taking off a coat, and you exist eternally as the essential being that you have created. (In truth, there is movement and process in Olam HaBa as well, albeit a very different type; it is a growth based on expanding everything you began building during your lifetime.)
Weekdays and Shabbos
The weekdays are an experience of this world, a time to physically create, build, and grow. Shabbos is more than just a day of rest; it’s a taste of Olam HaBa. On Shabbos, we cease creative physical activity and experience what it means to simply exist. This is the spiritual parallel to our transition from this world to the next. In this world, we have the chance to grow and build; in the next, we cease our creative activity and experience everything we have built. Shabbos is the ultimate reminder that our lives have an end point, and that the result is only as great as every bit of effort that we have invested into building it. On Shabbos, we reflect on what we have built and become – both in the preceding week and in our entire life leading up to this point.
This is why, despite the fact that we may pause our physical growth on Shabbos, we don’t stop our spiritual growth; in fact, we place special emphasis on it. This is because the experience of Olam HaBa that we taste on Shabbos should compel us to take full advantage of this world and to further build, develop, and grow. Shabbos is the reminder that one day we will no longer have the opportunity to take advantage of this world, and thus our response should be to redouble our conviction to do so. We can then enter the next week rejuvenated and inspired to become even more.
Shabbos: Focusing on Destination
It is all too easy to lose focus of the bigger picture, of what is truly important in life. Many people are stuck in an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep, repeat. Life becomes about weekends and vacations, and the purpose of life is simply to get by. However, this is not what we were created for. Each and every one of us has the potential for greatness, and our job in this world is to find our unique greatness and bring it to life.
Businesses hold regular meetings to discuss their goals and progress, and athletes build specific training programs to ensure maximum performance. Both constantly track their progress and adjust themselves when necessary to ensure that they continue progressing toward their target. Yet, when it comes to the important things in life, such as our life’s purpose, our family, and our spiritual growth, how often do we create concrete goals? How often do we sit down and measure our progress, recalibrating as necessary to achieve our goals? Shabbos is the time to focus on destination, to ask ourselves: “Where am I going in life? What are my goals? What am I trying to accomplish?”
The Goal of Shabbos
Shabbos is an opportunity to solidify past growth and propel ourselves toward future greatness. The first step to achieving this is looking back at everything you have become until now and enjoying everything you have built – the person you have created. The second step is to take a reflective step outside of yourself and to view yourself objectively from an outside perspective. We need to have the courage to go into a room, alone, and ask ourselves the important questions: “Who am I? What drives me? What makes me unique? What are my talents? What are my passions? What can I contribute to the Jewish People and the world as a whole?” But, most importantly, “How am I doing in life? Am I achieving my goals? Is there anything that needs more work, more attention?”
The last step is to redirect and recalibrate. Just as a GPS recalibrates when you veer off course, Shabbos is the time to do the same for our life trajectory. Our lives are built through the decisions we make, and Shabbos provides us with the ideal opportunity to make the decision to become more. Every decision we’ve ever made in our lives has led you to this very moment, and any decision we make going forward can forever alter our lives for the better. Shabbos is when we regain perspective on who we are, where we are headed, and what decisions we must make to become our best and truest selves.
May we be inspired to fully experience Shabbos, a taste of Olam HaBa, and use this taste of destination to unlock our true greatness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.