Six days shall you accomplish your activities, and on the seventh day you shall desist, in order that your ox and donkey may rest #(23:12)

There are some verses on which Rashi comments, “this verse demands an interpretation”; i.e., it cannot be taken literally. The above verse is one that demands an interpretation.

The Talmud says that if a person observes Shabbos properly, it is as if he observed the entire Torah, whereas if one violates Shabbos, it is as if he violated the entire Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 3). The Torah repeats the commandment of observing Shabbos several times, and it is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet, if we take the above verse literally, “in order that your ox and donkey may rest,” it would seem that the sole purpose of Shabbos is to provide respite for work animals. That can hardly be true. We must, therefore, look for another meaning in this verse, and the Torah commentaries provide it for us.

The mussar authorities say that the ox is the symbol of strength and energy, while the mule is a symbol of indolence and obstinacy. This is why, when the Torah wishes to tell us that a combined effort by two people or animals of opposite nature is prohibited, it states, “You shall not plow with an ox and a mule together” (Deuteronomy 22:10; Chinuch, Mitzvah 550).

We have a variety of character traits, in some of which we take pride, others we may wish to disown. The chassidic and mussar writings say that all human traits can be channeled into constructive channels. A person may wish to deny his feelings of aggression or obstinacy. There is no need to deny these. Rather, they should be directed toward constructive goals.

In psychology, there is the concept of sublimation. It is theorized that the subconscious mind can redirect an unacceptable drive toward proper goals. Thus, psychologists say, an astronomer who peers through a telescope or a scientist who looks through a microscope has converted a voyeuristic drive into a constructive curiosity. Although sublimation is certainly a beneficial mechanism, it is not accomplished consciously. The person has no awareness of the origin of his scientific curiosity.

Our ethicists say that there is no need to deny or repress any urge or drive. These are part of our physiological makeup. Rather, we should allow ourselves to be aware of them and consciously redirect them. But this requires introspection and self-examination, something which most people have little time to do. We are too occupied with our daily activities to take time out for meditation, contemplation and soul-searching.

Shabbos provides the opportunity for introspection. “Six days shall you accomplish your activities, and on the seventh day you shall desist.” Desist and refrain from all your usual activities. Freeze your aggressive, assertive, indolent and obstinate traits. Let them not be manipulated by subconscious mechanisms. Allow them to be at rest, where you can examine them and see what you can do with them.

This is indeed a worthy function of Shabbos. It gives a person the opportunity to enhance one’s spirituality by becoming the finest human being one can be.