Parashat Yitro – Shabbat rest becomes a taste of the redemption

Our Torah portion includes the “10 commandments”. While most of us recall the commandments not to murder or to honour our parents, many forget one of the 10 statements is to observe the Shabbat day. According to our tradition, this law is as important as any others. But why?

Why do we observe Shabbat rest?

The most common response to this question is learned from this week’s Torah portion: we rest on Shabbat, because God rested on Shabbat. Thus, Shabbat becomes a „remembrance of Creation.“ Our reading highlights the connection between Shabbat and Creation: „Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work… For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, … and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it“ (Exodus 20:9–11).

This powerful motivation for sanctifying the seventh day is certainly sufficient. Yet, we learn another rationale for resting on Shabbat from next week’s parashah. In Parashat Mishpatim, which is primarily concerned with civil and moral laws, the Torah teaches: „Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed“ (Exodus 23:12).

This verse is strikingly different from the presentation of Shabbat in the Decalogue. Here, Shabbat observance is part of ethical and humanitarian living. In the verses preceding this discussion of Shabbat, the Torah warns against subverting the rights of the needy and oppressing the stranger . This idea of social justice and freedom is also linked with Shabbat in Moses‘ reiteration of the Decalogue in the Book of Deuteronomy: „Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave… or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day“ (Deut. 5:13–15). In this beautiful passage, Shabbat rest becomes a taste of the redemption from slavery in Egypt. Just as God saved us from the unrelenting toil of Egyptian servitude, we must create a society in which our servants and animals find rest from their labours.

So why do we rest on Shabbat? The Torah portions of this and next week illustrate the multifaceted nature of Jewish ritual. Shabbat observance evokes two important themes in Jewish theology: God’s Creation and God’s Salvation. In both cases, God’s actions serve as a model for our own. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we express our faith in God as Creator. Six days a week, we engage in partnership with God as builders of the world around us.  On Shabbat we rest and reflect on God’s ultimate role as Architect of the Cosmos. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we also express our heritage as redeemed slaves. The experience of liberation from work and weekday burdens reminds us the importance of overcoming oppression in the world.

May our Shabbat rest this week resonate with the echoes of Creation and Liberation. May we fashion our lives in the light of God’s ways, creating a world enriched with holiness, justice and freedom.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: MATTHEW BERKOWITZ)

Torah Reading Shabbat Yitro

Exodus 18:1-20:23 (Ex 19:7-20:14)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6

In our Torah Portion: •  Yitro brings his daughter Zipporah and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to his son-in-law Moses. • Moses follows Yitro’s advice and appoints judges to help him lead the people. • The Children of Israel camp in front of Mount Sinai. Upon hearing the covenant, the Israelites respond, „All that God has spoken we will do.“ • After three days of preparation, the Israelites encounter God at Mount Sinai. •God gives the Ten Commandments aloud directly to the people. • Frightened, the Children of Israel ask Moses to serve as an intermediary between God and them. Moses tells the people not to be afraid.

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