The Persecution Rests

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, Leon Kobrin. This week is the first anniversary of his passing. Dad’s dream  was to promote a cruise that would bring people of different races, religions, and nationalities together on the high seas. He called it the “Unity Cruise”.

SK 4 Shevat 5774

A day of rest has been a fixture in both religious and secular societies throughout time. It is an essential part of the lifestyle of Jews, Christians, and Moslems. The Chinese and the Cherokees had rest days. Even the Soviet Union had a state rest day.

In his book “The Sabbath” (1), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel portrays “rest “ as one of the three integral components of the Sabbath. (The other two are joy and holiness). The word he uses to characterize rest is menuha (pronounced “meh noo KHA”). His understanding of that term can give us a deep insight into what it really means to “be at rest”.

Rabbi Heschel’s analysis focuses on the Biblical verses that record God’s creation of the Sabbath. He compares and contrasts Genesis 2.2 with Exodus 20.11. Here is his question:

What was created on the seventh day?

The words, “On the seventh day God finished his work” (Genesis 2:2) seem to be a puzzle. Is it not said: “He rested on the seventh day”?” “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth” (Exodus 20:11). We would surely expect the Bible to tell us that on the sixth day God finished His work. (2)

Menuha is part of creation.

Here is his answer:

Obviously, the ancient Rabbis concluded, there was an act of creation on the seventh day. Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath.

“After the six days of creation – what did the universe still lack? Menuha. Came the Sabbath, came menuha, and the universe was complete.” (Ref Rashi on Megilla 9A, ref Medrash).

Menuha, which we usually render with “rest”, means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain, or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept, but something real and intrinsically positive. This must have been the view of the ancient rabbis if they believed that it took a special act of creation to bring it into being, that the universe would be incomplete without it.

Menuha is real. We can strive for it.

“What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose.” (Ref Rashi on Genesis 2.2, referencing  the Medrash)

To the Biblical mind menuha is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony. The word with which Job described the state after life he was longing for is derived from the same root as menuha. It is the state wherein man lies still, wherein the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.

Menuha means no more fighting, fear or distrust.

It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust. The essence of good life is menuha. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters” (the waters of menuha).(3)

The problem is persecution.

Fighting, fear and distrust can all be considered forms of persecution. The definition of persecution is “to harass with ill-treatment, especially because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs; to annoy persistently; to take vengeance upon.” The biblical citations below cast menuha as a respite from such troubles. This is especially true in the references to freedom from God’s wrath. It is our beliefs that lead us to stray. They are therefore the root cause of God’s “vengeance”.

Biblical support for menuha as rest from persecution.

Dev 12.9-11. Moses speech re: how to live in the Land. Am Yisrael can choose the way of safety from its enemies.

2 Samuel 14.15-17. Tranquility for people who are being targeted for “blood vengeance”.

1 Kings 8.56. (preceded by 8.44-53). God’s people delivered from persecution by its enemies.

Tehillim 23.1,2. God protects from enemies and adversaries.

Tehillim 95.11. Rest from God’s wrath.

Job 3:13-16. Death (or never being born!) as a “place” where “the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”

Ruth 1.9. Women find security in the homes of their husbands.

1 Chronicles 22.9. David charges his son Solomon to build the Temple because he, Solomon, is a man at rest from his enemies.

Menuha in the World to Come. 

Rabbi Heschel makes the point that “in later times, menuha became a synonym for the life in the world to come, for eternal life.” (3)  He cites the “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer as an example.

For every man and woman to make peace with his Maker is the ultimate goal. Until that time, the menuha that we achieve on Shabbat could only be a temporary respite from our troubles. Once our “rest” day is over, we must go back and deal with the persecution we face. Indeed, many of us must deal with with persecution on the Sabbath day as well.

For some of us it is because of our religion, or our religious denomination. For others, it is due to gender, race, or country of origin. Then again it could be due to financial status or political belief.

Once we remove oppression and persecution from the equation of social interaction, we can all enjoy the long-term rest we seek.

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, NY: Farar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951). Noted throughout the book.
  2. Ibid., p. 22
  3. Ibid., pp. 22-23

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