Writing With Midrash: Entering Shabbat Through Mekhilta

I am at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, attending a spiritual writing retreat. Although it is beautiful summery green outside, it’s also raining, so I seek refuge in the dining hall, an old building with stained-glass windows that add color but also dim the light inside.

Second floor of Peirce Hall, Kenyon College.

Here on the second floor, I find a cozy couch looking out at the dark-lit windows, a musty smell, and best of all, privacy. Sometimes I just want to spend time in a room, get to know it, sit on all the furniture, feel like it’s mine for a while and that I am fully, reverently, joyfully inhabiting it.

That same instinct draws me to spend time with discrete “rooms” in the megamansion of Jewish text. The immensity of Jewish tradition can overwhelm me, and my initial awe turns into a craving for intimacy. So I choose a textual room, sit with each phrase, and find how I can come to inhabit it.

So here I am. The room I’ve settled in for now is from a midrashic collection called Mekhilta. This is an old midrash, probably collected in the 3rd century CE. It has nine rooms or tractates. The very last room, the ninth, is small, covering only two sections of Torah. Both sections, Exodus 31:12-17 and 35:1-3, discuss Shabbat. Exodus 31:12-17 includes the lines that comprise the prayer V’Shamru, sung on Shabbat.

Exodus 31:12-17

12) And God said to Moses:
13) You speak to the children of Israel and say,
But my Shabbats you shall keep
For it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations
That you may know that I am Adonai who sanctifies you.
14) You shall keep Shabbat for it is holy to you
Those who profane it shall surely be put to death
For one who does work on it
That soul shall be cut off from its people.
15) Six days shall work be done,
But on the seventh day is a day of rest holy to Adonai.
One who does work on the day of Shabbat
Shall surely be put to death.
16) Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat
To make the Shabbat throughout their generations,
An eternal covenant.
17) It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever,
For in six days God made the heavens and the earth,
And on the seventh day rested and was refreshed.

Mekhilta, tractate Shabbat, Ex. 31:12-17 Midrash 1 (of 13)

The first midrash is short:

ויאמר ה’ אל משה (לאמר ואתה דבר) לא על ידי מלאך ולא על ידי שליח
And God said to Moses: You speak…
Not through a messenger and not by an agent.

That’s it. Very direct, mimicking the directness God commands of Moses. The midrash wants to know why the Torah needed to say “you”, rather than the implied you when telling someone, “speak.” That extra word becomes a clue to cut out intermediaries. The message of Shabbat is important enough that it must come from the messenger and agent par excellence, Moses himself.

Moses still calls out to us directly from the Torah. Shabbat awareness awaits. Am I ready?