How do we become refreshed and inspired? What is it that makes us happy? What constitutes leisure? What does it really mean to rest? These questions go to the heart of the Torah’s philosophy of the meaning and purpose of life. They go to the heart of the Shabbat experience.
Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch (Shiurei Da’as Chapter 17), offers a clue to answering some of these questions. He points to a passage in the Midrash (Breishis Rabah 10:1.), that recounts how after G-d finished creating the world, He looked around and noted that one thing was missing – menuchah, or rest. So He created Shabbat. The Midrash likens this to a king who prepares a magnificent hall and wedding canopy but still needs the bride. So, too, when G-d created the world, the whole of Creation awaited the bride − Shabbat.
Rav Elya Meir poses the following question: if Shabbat is simply a day off, an absence of stress and difficulties rather than the presence of something positive, how is it symbolized by a bride? A bride is very much a presence at a wedding; she is the beauty, the meaning, the purpose of the event. If we understand Shabbat as simply rest and leisure, an absence of stress and challenge, why is it like a bride?
He concludes that Shabbat is not simply the absence of stress; rather, it is actually something active, positive and creative. A bride is a positive presence that fills the whole wedding. So, too, Shabbat fills the world with meaning, beauty and glory.
Some think that the best way to achieve happiness and tranquility is to remove stress. It can often seem as though inner peace requires a freedom from responsibilities. We are encouraged to find the most perfect beach on the most perfect island, far from the tensions and obligations of ordinary life. This worldview seems to promote the idea that we work in order to stop working, to earn enough money so that we can retire and relax. Many people believe that if they make enough money, they will find happiness, inner peace and an absence of stress.
Judaism, however, maintains that we will find tranquility and peace of mind not by running away from duty, but by embracing it. The Torah teaches us that a life of discipline and virtue will ultimately bring us fulfilment, happiness and tranquility.
This relationship between duty and peace of mind can be found in the Book of Genesis. When Jacob blesses his son Issachar, he says, “And he saw tranquility that it was good… yet he bent his shoulder to carry the burden and he became a servant.” (Breishis 49:15.) Yet this verse seems like a contradiction: what tranquility can be had when one labors as a servant? How are we to understand this?
Rav Elya Meir offers the analogy of a river. As we know, a river flows downward towards the ocean. If one tries to divert its course, the river becomes turbulent with rapids and currents. So too G-d created each of us with a neshamah, a soul, and He gave each of us a purpose to do good in this world, to fulfill mitzvot and carry out responsibilities. In the same way that a river naturally flows downward towards the ocean, so too our neshamah naturally “flows” upward towards G-d. All things yearn to return to their source. When we try to stop that natural flow, the result is tension and turbulence.
Our very essence as human beings is fulfilled when we act in accordance with G-d’s will: when we do mitzvot, when we accept responsibility, when we do good deeds and help others. When we strive to simply get rid of stress and can’t be bothered to do good deeds, we don’t find peace of mind. We find disquiet instead.
Although Shabbat may be a day of “rest”, it is not a day to do nothing. Instead, Shabbat is filled with meaningful mitzvot − going to shul, spending time with family, enjoying the festive meals and the singing, sharing words of Torah and engaging with the community. It’s a day filled with positive, productive acts that foster inner calm. The Shabbat Amidah prayer of Minchah aptly describes it as “the rest of love and generosity.”
We understand this link between duty and fulfillment by looking at our personal relationships. As Rav Elya Meir once noted, love and generosity in marriage and parenting may not come easily. But there is a menuchah, a tranquility, that comes from investing in these relationships.
The Amidah prayer further describes Shabbat as “the rest of truth and faith.” Truth and faith also do not come easily. The study of Torah is all about the pursuit of truth, and the mental and emotional effort it requires is considerable. Even faith in G-d is far from easy; it develops and deepens over a lifetime. The message of this prayer is that investments in worthwhile deeds and pursuits ultimately bring peace, serenity and happiness in life. This is why the prayer also describes Shabbat as “a rest which is filled with peace and tranquility, calm and security.” When we do what we are meant to be doing with our lives, we will find peace.
Shabbat represents the joy of a life lived as it should be, as a journey on the path of goodness. This is why the Talmud says that when we part from someone, we say, “lech leshalom, go to peace,” not “lech beshalom go in peace”, because when it’s toward peace, the implication is that the person is on a journey, constantly changing, creating, growing and doing mitzvot.
So we find that by simply mandating menuchah, Shabbat helps define our purpose on this earth. It is only when we are in touch with who we are and what our purpose is that we can find inner peace and serenity. This is not to say that literal rest for the body and the mind is not important; we need to refresh ourselves physically and emotionally, of course. But Shabbat takes this much further. It teaches us one of the Torah’s foundational truths: that by learning, growing, investing in our essential relationships and devoting ourselves to good deeds, we will find peace of mind and, ultimately, true happiness. All of this is contained within the one word the Torah and our sages chose to encapsulate the gift of Shabbat: menuchah.