(A) “…that soul shall be cut off from the midst of its people” (Exodus 31:14). Why is this said? Since it says: “Everyone that profanes it shall surely be put to death” (ibid.), I know only that one who does it presumptuously, despite the warning of witnesses, incurs the penalty. But how about the one who acts presumptuously but privately? Scripture says here: “Shall be cut off” – to include even one who profanes the Shabbat presumptuously even though only privately.
(B) “Shall be cut off.” To be cut off means precisely to cease to exist. “That soul.” This means the soul acting presumptuously. These are the words of Rabbi Akiva.
(C) “From the midst of its people.” And its people are left in peace.
Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Shabbata, on Exodus 31:12-17 (7 of 13)
Understanding the Midrash:
In rabbinic understandings of the phrase “cut off,” most often it is contrasted with punishments meted out by a human court. In other words, some things can be punished within the civil system, while others must be dealt with only by God. Here, the midrash suggests that explicit and public flouting of Shabbat observance can result in capital punishment by human courts, while private flouting – although not punishable in the human realm because it is not visible – also incurs a capital punishment. Rabbi Akiva’s recapitulation of the theme clarifies that the phrase, nebulous as it is, means mortal danger to the soul. The final paragraph of the midrash surprised me – the soul isn’t killed by removing it from the companionship of community, but rather the communal peace is restored by the excision of the toxic element.
Our spiritual practices, whether public or private, impact our environment. If we are blatantly disregarding important norms among those who cherish them, we cause a problem. More subtly, if we claim to be in spiritual community yet neglect norms even in private where no one else might ever know, we still have the potential to degrade the communal practice because we are failing to contribute our potential learning and experience around what supposedly binds a fellowship together.
Outside of communities of practice, what might this midrash have to teach to a solitary spiritual seeker? Perhaps we might imagine our habits, patterns of speech, thought, and action, as a collective, aiding or hindering our aspirations with every micro-move towards or away from the path we want to walk. Discerning which obvious and which hidden patterns serve us and which do not becomes essential to continuing to grow spiritually. I do not think “cutting off” the pieces of ourselves we are frustrated with helps at all. Repressing, judging, or ignoring a pattern rarely works. Rather, can we notice our negative patterns with compassion, and through skillful mindfulness release our attachment to these patterns, such that we are left feeling peaceful and whole?