The Sefat Emet, follow Rashi, teaching as about the different between ‘peaceful and tranquil rest’, and ‘momentary rest’.
With a surface level understanding of the Sefat Emet’s teachings, it does not take much to realize that one of his more beloved topics is the Sabbath. This affinity especially stands out in this week’s parsha, in which it seems that the Sefat Emet avoids dealing with the dramatic event central to the parsha- the sin of the golden calf- and instead he dedicates his commentary almost entirely to the verses dealing with the commandments regarding the Sabbath.
One of the sources that he uses repeatedly in this teaching is Rashi’s short and precise distinction that except the double language ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’, ‘שבת שבתון’ (Exodus 31:15). According to Rashi, the verse repeats the words in order to emphasize the desired rest of Shabbat is a peaceful and tranquil rest, and not a momentary rest’,’מנוחת מרגוע, ולא מנוחת עראי’. What is the meaning of this distinction? The Sefat Emet explains it in a few formulations that touch upon, in different ways, the difference between rest that is a result of only avoiding creating and rest as a virtue on its own.
According to the Sefat Emet, rest is temporary as long as it is only a negation, as long as free time feels like the silence after the storm, like empty time that still reverberates with the fullness that preceded it. This kind of rest is temporary in its very essence, since its entire existence stems from the contrast between this day of rest itself and the days that around it. In order for the rest to be released from this contrast, in order to disconnect from the constant oscillation between working and being calm, it is necessary ‘that the pause will not be a delay of work for the time being, but to forget the work entirely.’ Rest needs to conquer us like only work knows; one ‘has to anticipate all week long to come to their source and to the place of one’s rest.’
The Sefat Emet is aware that this is not a simple task at all. It is easier to be immersed in action more than in rest, to forget the Sabbath more than the troubles of the working days. In order to achieve this kind of rest, a different intelligence is required. The Sfat Emet describes this through the use of an additional source to which he returns again and again in his teachings: ‘Because obviously, the gift of Sabbath that God gave us includes the person’s ability to know and to make the Sabbath, just like Chazal said that when one gives his friend a gift, he must inform him, as it says, “that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you.”’. The Sabbath is a gift that requires knowledge, and without it, it cannot be actualized.
The Sefat Emet, indeed, assumes that this knowledge is rooted in us, ‘because the Israelites are attached to their root and the Sabbath belongs to their essence’; but it seems that it is not always actualized. Looking back, one can trace the moments in which temporary rest turned into calming rest. Time received a new quality: ‘because the six days of creation are the time, as it says “for six days He created.” Here we find that time only includes the six days. But the Sabbath does not exist within the boundaries of time.’ The Sefat Emet describes this as the shift in terms from ‘observing’(שמור) to ‘remembering,’ (זכור) and promises that ”through observing the Shabbat one can then remember.” From this we learn an additional characteristic to the distinction we are seeking: we can only observe the Sabbath, refrain from creating; however, arriving at tranquility, at the moment when the negation turns into a positive calmness, the (empty/hollow) space becomes full, is not in our hands.
This moment, in which the boundaries we demarcate turn into an actualized reality that acts upon us, turns the Sabbath into the most prominent demonstration of the reality of the Halacha. One of the central claims Rabbi Yehuda Halevi makes in the Kuzari is that the commandments operate in our world, their effect is real and actual, and there is no need to search for it in higher worlds. In my view, the Sabbath is the clearest example of the simplicity of this claim. In the moments when we are privileged to attain tranquility, the many restraints and prohibitions that we placed on ourselves turn into an actual reality, to a space in which we are immersed. The wonder of the Sabbath is not only in discovering the ability to secede from the day to day routine, but also in forgetting that we have even seceded from it, turning the restraints into reality. Therefore, says the Sfat Emet, the Sabbath is ‘preparation for the world to come… and a person must learn to forget all his work with the coming of the Sabbath, and through this one will easily gain the rest of the world to come.’ One who doesn’t know how to rest in this world, will not know how to rest in the world to come; and whoever succeeds in resting on the Sabbath, will never completely sink into the quicksand of the days of the week:
rest should not be coincidentally or temporarily, only let it leave an eternal impression on man… that every person be drawn after the Sabbath, that every person should contain within themselves an aspect of the Sabbath… the Sabbath gives stillness and rest to the souls of the Jewish people.