Our Torah portion this week begins with the mitzvah of Shabbat, reading: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.”
The prohibition against work is a strange thing to focus on at the beginning of these chapters, as the entirety of the chapters are precisely about work - about collecting materials and fashioning them into the Tabernacle, the structure allowing the Divine to dwell amongst the people.
Some of the sages saw this contrast as hinting at the underlying meaning of the word “Work” - Melachah - itself. By placing this prohibition before describing all of the work that went into the Tabernacle, the sages claim that the Torah is giving us the precise examples we need for what qualifies as melachah, and is therefore forbidden on Shabbat. But the word used for work - melachah - is particular. There are lots of Hebrew words that are translated as work or labor. Avodah is the most often used one, but we also have poel, and ma’aseh. So why melachah?
One of the main characters of these chapters is Betzalel, the Israelite endowed with the wisdom to design and construct the Tabernacle. The ancient rabbis were very interested in what it meant for him to be fit for this particular melachah, and in a core midrash, we learn that “Bezalel, who built the ark, was extolled before the Holy One and the angels.”
Angel, in Hebrew, is “malach.” It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to notice the similarities between this word, malach, and melachah, the word for work forbidden on Shabbat. They have the same Hebrew root, and this relationship hints at something much deeper about the term “melachah.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a legendary mystical master, wrote:
As our Sages taught: There is not a blade of grass below that does not have a star and an angel above, which strike it and tell it, “Grow!”
Let us take this seriously for a moment, as if it describes a real process integral to our universe. It is telling us that each aspect of our world is influenced towards growth by forces beyond the grasp of our five senses; that the development and evolution of the living world is brought forth by intelligences from beyond. We can call them stars, or angels, or whatever we want, but these invisible partners in creation guide all aspects of our world towards their destinies - towards their growth.
These forces, according to tradition, each have precisely one purpose and no more, and no two angels perform one task. Once that purpose is done, they return to their source, from which their raw material can be made into another angel. In this way, that which our tradition refers to as malachim, or angels, are the animating forces of creation, representative of life’s unfolding towards diversity and uniqueness. Each malach has command over one aspect or another of our world, urging it forward towards greater thriving, and that thriving itself is worship of God. Growing towards the beckoning of the malachim is how, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. This growing is the way the natural world participates in worship. Melachah, then, is the act of material Creation - God’s influence over the world is expressed through these malachim who summon forth melachah, charging the cosmos with meaning. And, on Shabbat, the force of melachah ceases, a day of rest.
But what of us? How do we humans fit into this cosmology of melachah and malachim? The rabbis teach that in regard to three attributes, humans are like ministering angels: We have understanding like the ministering angels, we walk erect like the ministering angels, we can use the sacred tongue like the ministering angels.
Perhaps Betzalel’s attributes that made him praised before angels were those that are precisely those like the ministering angels: he understood the directions for the Tabernacle, he had the perspective to lay out and carry out the plan, and he imbued it with sacred purpose. In this, he performed the kinds of tasks angels, malachim, perform by undertaking his particular melachah, work, of the Tabernacle in his particular way. This was the root of the praise he received before God and the angels.
We can each take something away from this on this Shabbat. If we, as humans, are to embody aspects of the angels, of the forces that guide Creation, we must listen in to the particular melachot we are being guided to grow towards. Unlike malachim, humans are multivalent - we are made in the image of God, the ultimate Creator, Singular in essence but multitudinous in attributes, the source of all melachah. Just as God created a dwelling place for Creation, Betzelel’s melachah of the Tabernacle led to a dwelling place for God, and our melachot, the Divine work of our lives, brings forth the same flow of Divine Purpose.
What ordained melachot, sacred tasks, are you called to in your life? Although we are forbidden from actually doing them during Shabbat, (just as God rested from Creation on the 7th day, so must we), may you find time during this Shabbat to reflect on what melachot you are growing towards, perhaps being guided by the Malachei haShareit - the ministering angels in your life. In identifying your own particular melachah, may you find peace both on this Shabbat, and with your working life, seeing your role as one amongst the multitude of forces guiding Creation towards its worship of the Divine. Shabbat shalom.