Remember the day of Sabbath to consecrate it… (Exodus 20:8-9) One of the reasons the Torah lists for the observance of Shabbat (not in this context but in the second rendition of the Ten Commandments) is to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. No one knew better than the Israelites in that generation the meaning of being controlled by others. They were not masters of their time while enslaved by Egypt; they and their time belonged to their Egyptian slave-owners. Upon being released from bondage they were suddenly on their own, with no person demanding their attention or service.
Going from a strict, rigid and structured framework to a free and boundless reality can be very traumatic. The limits imposed by living on a meager salary, for example, can be very good for a person’s discipline. Upon winning the lottery many a family’s life went to ruin because the sudden freedom acquired through new-found wealth was more than they could handle. Growing gradually wealthy, on the other hand, gives a person time to adjust slowly to a different lifestyle, and one won’t go wildly out of control in the process.
Abraham Lincoln recognized this nature of humanity and he therefore did not initially have plans for all slaves in the United States to go free instantly. He foresaw a process that would gradually lift slavery until it was entirely abolished, giving the individual emancipated slaves the opportunity to build their lives productively, without leaving a sudden vacuum for hundreds of thousands. Indeed, the Civil War initially was not about slavery but about the right for individual States to secede. Only later, in the second half of the war, slavery became the all or nothing issue. Lincoln had no choice but to accept that all slaves would immediately go free even though he was aware of the implications. Many generations have since been affected by this sudden displacement, and to this day the descendants of slaves are still struggling to gain equal footing in society and feel comfortable mixing and engaging with everyone else. Individual migrants who arrive from different countries, seeking opportunity, almost immediately fall into place and are absorbed into society, but the sudden freedom imposed on masses forced the creation of ghettos and slum neighborhoods.
Shabbat was given to the Israelite nation, in part to commemorate this Exodus, this freedom, this release from slavery. If a particular day is allocated for rest it forms a framework wherein the other days of the week are used productively for work. It shielded the nation from the debilitating effects of unaccustomed liberty, which they might not handle well. Instead of being simply driven away from everything they knew, the Israelites were given the opportunity for greatness, to move from compulsive, unrewarding service of another human force to willful service of the Divine. Then they served because they were forced to and now they serve because they choose to do so. As R’ Hirsch puts it, they no longer serve because they ‘must.’ It sets humans apart from all other creations of the universe. Everything else is pre-programmed to operate according to its design. The planets revolve around the sun, the fish eat their young; the trees shed their leaves in the fall and the beavers continue to build dams. But man acts as he wills. Man is not compelled to follow his instincts, he can master them.
Now, more than ever before, Shabbat demonstrates mastery over ourselves and over time. Six days you shall labor and do all of your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to Hashem, your G-d, you shall not do any work; you, your son, your daughter… (Exodus 20:9-10)
While Shabbat is often seen as a day of restriction, that is mainly due to lack of understanding of what Shabbat is about. It is actually a day of release, a day when we are allowed to set our work aside, a day during which we can focus on matters of eternal value and importance rather than the temporal. We have grown accustomed 24 hour availability, 7 days a week. We are hooked up to wires (or wireless devices) and various instant media without stop. We are addicted, overtaken, by the need to be plugged in.
There is a phenomenon that is called observing half-Shabbos, referring to youth who are from observant families and remain observant themselves with the exception of cell phone use for texting and facebook. They are not capable of being disconnected from those communication channels for an entire day every week. It is too difficult.
When we talk about release from bondage we are talking about having no other master other than our choice. Whether it is imposed by another or by self-inflicted habits, if we are bound to practices we cannot control then we are not truly free. Shabbat is about being free.
Many Mitzvot are listed as ‘in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.’ While not in every case do we easily see the connection, Shabbat has a clear link to the Exodus as discussed.
A bonus facet of Shabbat: On the seventh day you shall rest. On the seventh day we can for once stop preparing for life and instead live. The 39 categories of labor as described by the Mishnah are those categories of labor which were necessary in the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. They depict actions used to prepare and to build. They describe the parts of a process. On Shabbat we are not in a process. We are here! We live, we enjoy, we stop thinking about tomorrow or the day after. Our pursuits of having bread to put on the table next week or after retirement are not part of the Shabbat experience because that is something we work towards and on Shabbat we have already arrived.
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