Shutdown Shabbat

by Bob Schwartz

Whatever the disparate historical origins of the two [creation] accounts, the redaction gives us first a harmonious cosmic overview of creation and then a plunge into the technological nitty-gritty and moral ambiguities of human origins.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses

Much of the federal government has shut down today—it has ceased from its work. And it is Shabbat when, based on the story of creation in the Torah, people are asked to cease from their everyday work because this day is different and set apart.

It is an opportunity to see if that story of creation offers any insights into the government situation. (It is tempting but ungracious to suggest that one particular person who could use those insights—any insights—turn to the Bible for wisdom—any wisdom. But that’s not happening, even on Shutdown Shabbat.)

The creation story in Genesis 2 radically switches focus. When the six days of cosmic creation are over, there is the familiar seventh day break:

And God completed on the seventh day the task He had done, and 3 He ceased on the seventh day from all the task He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for on it He had ceased from all His task that He had created to do. (Genesis 2:3-4)

But with the big picture, high-concept work done, the detailed tasks begin. God, as they say, is in the details:

On the day the LORD God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of to cease from their everyday the field yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil, then the The LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and He placed there the human He had fashioned. And the LORD God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food, and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge, good and evil. Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is goodly, bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. And the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through all the land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, the one that goes to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Euphrates. And the LORD God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it. (Genesis 2:5-15)

Robert Alter notes:

As many modern commentators have noted, the first Creation account concludes with the summarizing phrase in the first half of this verse: “This is the tale [literally, these are the begettings] of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” these two paired terms, “heavens” and “earth,” taking us back in an envelope structure to the paired terms of the very first verse of the Creation story. Now, after the grand choreography of resonant parallel utterances of the cosmogony, the style changes sharply….In this more vividly anthropomorphic account, God, now called YHWH ’Elohim instead of ’Elohim as in the first version, does not summon things into being from a lofty distance through the mere agency of divine speech, but works as a craftsman, fashioning (yatsar instead of bara’, “create”), blowing life-breath into nostrils, building a woman from a rib. Whatever the disparate historical origins of the two accounts, the redaction gives us first a harmonious cosmic overview of creation and then a plunge into the technological nitty-gritty and moral ambiguities of human origin. (emphasis added)

This, on Shutdown Shabbat, is a root of the problem. The story suggests that even God, who could reportedly talk his way into any grand scheme, had to stop talking, roll up his sleeves, and do the difficult work, “plunge into the technological nitty-gritty and moral ambiguities.”

Those who have somehow ended up in exalted positions of power are urged to use Shabbat, especially this one, to contemplate morality, their actions, and the effect those actions have on human beings. The powerful might rather be golfing, but there’s plenty of other time to do that. This is Shutdown Shabbat.

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