What exactly are we doing here? Without doubt, this is one of the most urgent questions pondered by the human mind through the ages. All sorts of answers have been suggested by generations of philosophers, mystics and cab drivers. The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, is said to have offered the following:

G‑d transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual.

In other words, the universe originated as a concept in the divine mind, which G‑d proceeded to transform into a physical world. Our task and role is to take this physical world and turn it back into a divine idea.

This explains the numerous references to man in the writings of the Sages as "G‑d's partner in creation." Being a "partner" implies an equality that seems hard to justify in this case: whatever it is we accomplish in this world is hardly on par with the monumental fact that Someone first had to make the thing! But if we go with the Baal Shem Tov's formula, we indeed have a symmetry of roles: a) transforming spirituality into physicality; b) transforming physicality into spirituality.

In fact, the Talmud claims that ours is the greater achievement. Giving physical form to a spiritual concept is no small task, but transforming a piece of wood, stone or flesh into a spiritual idea is, by far, the more difficult endeavor (see Ketuboth 5a; in Taanit 5a, the Talmud illustrates this point with a story about a golden table leg filched from heaven).

What exactly do we do? We do mitzvot. Doing a mitzvah means taking a particular physical object or resource and using it to perform an action willed by G‑d. A mitzvah announces to the world: "The universe is not a mass of matter, but G‑dly light. These are not 'things' — they are divine desires."

So is that what life is about, making announcements? Indeed it is. Because when brute matter starts making announcements — when it begins to convey something, express something divine — it ceases to be brute matter. It becomes spirit.

Every mitzvah announces this truth to the world; every mitzvah transforms matter into spirit. But there is one mitzvah which the Talmud singles out as the epitome of our "partnership with G‑d in creation" — the mitzvah of observing the Shabbat.

Observing the Shabbat means that for seven days a week our lives articulate the story of creation. G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; when the Jew applies his or her creative energies to the world for six days and rests on the seventh, s/he becomes the very embodiment of G‑d's ongoing creative involvement with His creation. S/he proclaims (with his or her mouth when reciting the kiddush, and with every other organ, limb and faculty that works during the first six days of the week and rests on Shabbat): "G‑d did not make a world and just leave it there, a pile of matter floating through space. The work of creation — His and ours — is perpetual. It goes on and on, week after week after week. Every moment of time, G‑d condenses spirit into matter. And every moment of time, we distill matter into spirit."

At Sinai, the 613 mitzvot were synopsized as Ten Commandments inscribed upon two "Tablets of Testimony" — five on the first tablet and five on the second. Why on two tablets? The Midrash explains that this is to emphasize that the sixth commandment is an extension of the first, the seventh mirrors the second, and so on. (See our previous articles, The First Commandment, The Jealous Lover and Tom's House and Harry's Car.)

Thus Ninth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your fellow", is the correlate of the Fourth Commandment, "Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it." In the words of the Midrash:

This is to say that one who violates the Shabbat testifies before He who spoke the world into being that He did not create his world in six days and He did not rest on the seventh; and that one who keeps the Shabbat testifies before He who spoke the world into being that He created His world in six days and He rested on the seventh. As it is written (Isaiah 43:10): "You are My testifiers, says the L-rd."