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Torah Commentary
Ki Tisa (March 6, 2010)

Lori Corrsin

arashat Ki Tisa contains one of our most beloved prayers: V’shamru (Exodus 31:16-17). The Rabbinic sages placed these Torah verses into our Shabbat liturgy because they present God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

God speaks, declaring that Jews shall keep the Sabbath as our day of rest. God then says that observing the Sabbath is a sign of our bond with Him. By keeping Shabbat, we are striving to be holy as God is holy. We imitate God’s creation of the universe: creating/working for six days, then stopping to rest and refresh our souls on the seventh day.

In Genesis 2:1-3, after God created the universe, God blessed the Sabbath day and called it holy; the first thing that God sanctified was Shabbat: holy time. But it is only here, in Exodus, that God declares our observance of this holy time of Shabbat as a sign of our covenant with Adonai.

Over many centuries, Jews have cherished this great gift, this day out of the hectic rush of our lives, this day of joy. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who in his book The Sabbath describes Shabbat as coming “like a caress,” wrote:

A thought has blown the market place away.
There is a song on the wind and joy in the trees.
Shabbat arrives in the world,
Scattering a song in the silence of the night:
Eternity utters a day.

These lovely words express Shabbat as a song, sweeping through our daily lives in the market place, bringing joy to the world. The Sabbath celebrates holy time; it is experienced in “the now.” Song also must be experienced in “the now” ; it happens in time. So, it is particularly apt that music is used to express the ideal of the Sabbath: rest and refreshment of our soul. Song can shape sacred time.

Happy are they who remember the Sabbath
and sanctify it with prayer and song. — Union Prayer Book, page 31

When chanting the V’shamru text from the Torah scroll, it is straightforward and brief. It is a matter-of-fact description of the covenant.

Listen: V’shamru Torah Cantillation

Over the centuries, many composers have written wonderful, expressive settings of V’shamru. One such composer is Chemjo Vinaver. His mission in life was to preserve the melodies of Eastern European Jewry; he visited many communities and transcribed their music. His V’shamru begins with one of these solo cantorial chants. What follows is Vinaver’s evocative choral interpretation of the piece.

Listen: Vinaver V’shamru

Vinaver’s use of text painting, using the music to express the meaning of the words, is masterful. Listen to the choir singing the beginning words with long, drawn-out chords: V’shamru b’nei Yisrael et-hashabbat. (The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath.) These lush chords repeat at the end of the piece on the words shavat vayinafash. (God rested and was refreshed.) Just before the repeated harmonies, the choir sings the same text in unison, emphasizing the importance of these concepts.

Shabbat and shavat are from the same Hebrew root (rest), so the use of the similar musical material rounds out the piece. Through the music, we clearly can sense the connection between Shabbat and shavat vayinafash. We can feel Shabbat.

The Hebrew word vayinafash is derived form the noun nefesh: a person’s soul or life essence. This verbal form conveys the idea of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical energy, the revival of one’s total being. This is the Shabbat ideal. With vayinafash at the end of Vinaver’s V’shamru, we can experience God’s presence granting us spiritual energy.

Fill our hearts with Sabbath peace and serenity,
that we may hear the voice of Thy spirit. — Union Prayer Book, page 58

Heinrich Schalit’s edgy choral setting of V’shamru begins with the organ expressing the crashing drama of the birth of the world. The choir then softly enters in a declamatory style, mysterious and intense, in unison. The sound gradually builds through ot hi l’olam (a sign for all time), then really blossoms into the resolution of God’s Creation: ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. (For in six days God made the heaven and the earth.)

Like the Vinaver, Schalit’s opening choral motif returns for the ending text: uvayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash. (And on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.) Schalit saw the text as dynamic and grand. The intensity of God’s work on the six days of creation is evident in the music; present as well is the otherworldliness of God’s rest and refreshment. We sense that we never can really grasp God’s being, but we continually long to experience the Divine.

Thou hast implanted within me the yearning
for the unseen and the infinite… — Union Prayer Book, page 59

Listen: Schalit V’shamru

Frederick Piket’s V’shamru sings of calmness and tranquility; the music moves slowly, with a gentle rocking motion. It is antiphonal, with the choir echoing the cantor, except for the faster moving cantor solo, ki sheishet yamim asa Adonai et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz (singing of the six days when God created the heavens and the earth). The lovely music of beini uvein b’nei yisrael ot hi l’olam (between Me and the people of Israel, it is a sign for all time) returns at the end to gently express the rest and refreshment of Shabbat. Sabbath peace is evoked through Piket’s soothing harmonies.

May the spirit of the Sabbath fill our life
with its blessed peace. — Union Prayer Book, page 69

Listen: Piket V’shamru

In whatever way is possible for us as 21st century Reform Jews, experiencing Shabbat meaningfully can help us through the stress and turmoil of our weekday lives. When we lose sight of life’s nobility and are enmeshed in anxiety, the sanctification of Shabbat-time, or God-time, can inspire and revive our souls. We strive to open our hearts to God’s light on Shabbat, to be holy in our thoughts, in our words and in our actions, as God is holy.

More than the Jewish People has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Ahad Ha-am

May God bless us all with Shabbat joy, holiness, rest and peace.


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