For those who have not watched The Office, especially as far as James Spader’s character Robert California becomes the CEO: The new CEO has divided the workers in the Office in two columns, a sheet which has become known to every employee. He invites one half to lunch and the other half, not. He tells the lunchees that they are the ‘winners.’ When the manager asks for a public, transparent clarification in front of everyone back at the Office, Robert California reinforces his position. This is what he says:
Let me tell you some things I find productive:
Let me tell you some things I find unproductive:
Constantly worrying about where you stand based on inscrutable social clues
And then inevitably reframing it all in a reassuring way so that you can get to sleep at night
No. I do not believe in that at all.
If I invited you to lunch, I think you're a winner
If I didn't, I don't.
But I just met you all.
Life is long.
Winners, prove me right.
Losers, prove me wrong.
--James Spader as Robert California in The Office
The opening of our portion presents a stark example of negative reinforcement. Observe the Sabbath or else! What does it mean? No lighting of fires and no ‘m’lacha’ or ‘work.’ What specifically does ‘work’ mean?
According to the most classic rabbinic interpretation, the 39 aspects of work that are prohibited are based on those acts needed to build the sanctuary. They base their view on the juxtaposition of the rule for the Sabbath with the word ‘m’lacha’ which also appears in the acts of construction just a few verses further on.
But Dr. David Kraemer of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America suggests the purpose of the 39 types of work described are based on a different idea: survival. Aside from kindling which is specified and carrying which is mentioned in numerous other Biblical contexts (not carrying mannah on the Sabbath, the capital punishment for the stick gatherer in Numbers and more), all of the remaining 37 work categories can be fit into 4 narratives of creating those things we need for survival: Eating (cooking), Clothing (weaving), Shelter (building) and Torah (preparation of the parchment and writing). In order to prepare for the Sabbath correctly, one needs to do these things FIRST so Shabbat can be an experience of the Garden of Eden of the past and/or a foreshadowing of the Messianic times of the future.
The written Torah is the positive and negative reinforcement and honesty of Robert California. Reward and punishment are presented as facts of the Biblical universe. The rabbis seemed to understand that the universe was more complex than that, as are human beings. Robert California may feel that social cues and reframing are unnecessary diversions from productivity and work life, but the rabbis understand that we were created with the ability and necessity to navigate such murky waters.
The opening word of our parasha is Vayakhel -- Moses convoked, communitied, as it were, the people, a verb used only to describe bringing human beings together
It may be that as we navigate the working world that Robert California of The Office is right. We should pay more attention to the honest facts and figures of the world rather than the social cues that seem to indicate we are as popular as we need to be in processing such information.
However, Shabbat is the one time each week when we are not supposed to be concerned for our survival -- we ideally have spent the week preparing all we need for Shabbat so that all that’s left are those social cues and reframing of self so necessary for our development into the social animals we were meant to be. Inscrutable or not, no human society was built or sustained without social cues and reframing and getting a good night’s sleep.