What does this mean?
When G-d created the world he created it ex nihilo, something out of nothing. Before creation there was absolutely nothing besides G-d. With each of the 10 statements of creation (“Let there be light,” etc.), G-d brought our world and everything contained in it into existence. He did this during the six days of creation. On the seventh He rested.
This means that He no longer created anything out of nothing. Now, because no existence beside G-d existed before creation, even after G-d created it, it does not exist by itself, it needs to be constantly maintained in existence. As the Talmud puts it, “The world is not the place of G-d, rather G-d is the place of the world.” Rambam puts it this way, “G-d’s existence is not dependent on any of the creations, but all creations’ existence is constantly dependent on G-d. He is the only true existence.”
Rabbi Dessler compared it to a film projector and the film. As long as the projector light is shining, the film will play on the screen, but should the projector light go out, the characters on the screen do not die, they simply disappear. So too, as long as G-d wills anyone or anything to exist it will exist, but should He stop willing it to exist it would simply disappear. This means that although new things are not appearing all the time, there is a constant creation ex nihilo going on to keep everything in existence.
The creation that we are capable of is ex materia, something out of something. We cannot create or destroy things, we just change their forms.
Obviously, we have no power to create ex nihilo, but we do have the power to create ex material, and so our Shabbos takes the form of resting from this type of creation. To be exact, rest on the Shabbos is defined in this week’s parshah. The parshah is really about the commandment to build the Tabernacle, but it starts with the commandment in which we are warned not to do any melachah, loosely defined as work. The Torah does not explain what this work is; that task is left for the Oral Law.
The Talmud explains that the juxtaposition of the two commandments, to keep Shabbos and to build the Tabernacle, tells us that whatever work was needed to build the Mishkan should not be done on Shabbos. These are the 39 categories of work needed to build the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. Shabbos is it defined by the Temple because the Temple is a microcosm of the world.
By resting on Shabbos, we are acknowledging that we live in a world created by G-d. Beside what this means historically, it also means that we live in G-d’s constantly created world. We are the characters in G-d’s film and what makes us fascinating is that He created us with free will.
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.