“And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:15).”
Today – the Shabbat during Pesach – we have a double reminder that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Passover itself, of course, is all about remembering our ancestral time of slavery and God’s loving redemption. And as we said at Kiddush last night, Shabbat is zacher l’tziyat Mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, as well as a zikaron l’ma’aseh bereshit, a remembrance of the Creation.
The connection between Shabbat and Creation is made very explicit in the Torah. In the book of Exodus Moses tells the people “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and made it holy.” It is a case of imitatio deus, imitating God; similarly the Torah commands us in the book of Leviticus קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יי אֱ-להֵיכֶם: “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” The Talmud extends imitatio deus to how we should treat other people: God clothes the naked, visits the sick, and comforts mourners — therefore, the rabbis tell us, we should do the same.
But the connection between Shabbat and being slaves in Egypt is not made so explicit. Not surprisingly, rabbis over the ages have eagerly weighed in with reasons for the connection between slavery in Egypt and Shabbat.
Rashi reads the commandment in Deuteronomy, “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day,” as expressing a condition of our ancestors redemption. God brought us out from slavery in Egypt on the condition that we would serve Him and guard His commandments. By Rashi’s logic, the connection between Egypt and Shabbat is that we need to remember that we owe God.
Some people might think the connection is so obvious the Torah didn’t need to say anything about it – after all, slaves don’t get a day off, so we’re just showing that we’re not slaves anymore, thanks to God. The 12th century Spanish Rabbi Ibn Ezra explains the verse in Deuteronomy, “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” in exactly that fashion – he says slaves don’t rest, and therefore God brought you out from slavery and commanded you to rest in order that you’ll remember that you were slaves—in other words, it’s reminder of God’s great kindness in saving us from slavery.
The 13th century Spanish rabbi Nachmanides (Ramban) says that those who say the connection between Egypt and Shabbat is to remember God’s kindness have it all wrong. In Kiddush what we say is that Shabbat is zacher litziyat mitzrayim, a remembrance of going out from Egypt. We don’t say it’s a remembrance of when we were slaves. When we’re sitting around on Shabbat and resting there is nothing about it that is a remembrance of God bringing us out from Egypt per se. Ramban sees these two aspects of Shabbat – remembering creation and remembering the Exodus from Egypt – as much more closely connected. Ramban says the essence of Shabbat is to remember God as the Creator. The Exodus – which our ancestors witnessed, and which is therefore part of our inherited memory – is a potent reminder of God the Creator’s power. The miracles of the going out from Egypt are supposed to make us think of the miracles of creation. Therefore, in a sense, the Passover story – and going out from Egypt — is as much a reminder of Shabbat as Shabbat is reminder of going out from Egypt.
Besides Ramban’s criticism, I have another problem with the explanation that the connection between Egypt and Shabbat is that we should remember God’s kindness. As someone pointed out at my Seder table couple of nights ago, if Passover is about freedom, freedom from slavery, what’s the deal with all the rules? Aren’t we in a way slaves to all those rules? Isn’t there a little contradiction in the idea that God gave us Shabbat as an expression of his kindness, so that we would be free, yet it’s a capital offense to violate the rules? Rest, or else!
I suggest a different reason for remembering that we were slaves on Shabbat, a reason which explains why we need all the rules of Shabbat. And that is so that we’ll remember not to be slaves today.
I’m not talking about slavery in other parts of the world – which certainly exists, in places like South Asia and Africa. I’m talking about slavery right here at home – the slavery that we willingly submit to. Things or habits that we are addicted to, that we can’t give up, not even for one day a week.
We’re addicted to TV. The average chi
ld spends four hours each and every day watching TV. And this is despite warnings about how bad too much TV is for the developing brain. Not to mention the effect being a couch potato has on your body. Everyone complains about too much violence on TV, but no one turns it off.
We’re addicted to our cars. The average household has two or more cars and drives over 20,000 miles every year. Gas at $2.85 a gallon doesn’t slow us down, nor do concerns about pollution or global warming.
We’re addicted to cell phones. 70% of all Americans have a cell phone. Considering that something like 18% of all Americans are under the age of 15, and another few percent are over the age of 80, something like 90% of Americans between 15 and 80 have cell phones. And we are certainly addicted to them. At plays and concerts people have to be reminded to turn their cell phones off. In the middle of conversations, at a restaurant, people answer their cell phones. Then you have the people with the Bluetooth headsets, walking around looking like Borg with glazed eyes, receiving instructions from the collective. “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile.”
We’re addicted to computers and e-mail. My kids find it amusing that my wife and I will send each other an e-mail rather than walk down the hall to say something. And computers can be one of the most harmful addictions, because they are so isolating. Instead of getting out and socializing and interacting with other people, we sit by ourselves staring at a little screen.
There was a great editorial piece that ran in the Toledo Blade on Thursday: “Quit Surfing and Socialize.” The editor wrote “Higher education always has been about more than just book learning. It also offers an invaluable and potentially life-changing opportunity for young adults to become acquainted with different people and how to get along with them.
“But, sadly, students are doing little of that any more, thanks to the Internet. Too many of them spend too much time gaming, surfing, and blogging.”
The article describes how the top technology institute in India – home for the geekiest of the geeks – has responded. So many students were oversleeping and either not making it to the first class of the day, or showing up late and groggy, that they decided to pull the plug. Every night at 11:30 they shut down the campus internet access. Needless to say, the students were outraged. But hopefully it will give them something to talk about at 11:30 at night, and maybe they’ll develop some social skills in the process.
Jews, of course, have a different solution to the problem of our lives being taken over by technology. The Sabbath. For 25 hours a week, we go unplugged. No driving (except to the synagogue), no TV, no cell phones, no computers. We put aside the high-tech, and try to get in high touch. We stop creating, we stop trying to bend the world to our will, and instead we content ourselves with just “being.”
And therein lies the great paradox of the Sabbath. Because the answer to my friend’s question – aren’t you slaves to the rules? — is quite the contrary. The rules, which to an outsider might appear stifling, are actually quite liberating. If it wasn’t for all the rules of Shabbat, I don’t know if I would ever get a day off. There’s always something urgent, something that must be done right away. Last Sunday I had the sad duty to officiate at two funerals in one day. If it weren’t for the rules of the Sabbath, I undoubtedly would have spent Saturday at my computer working on eulogies. Instead – since I understand myself as commanded by God to turn my computer off on Shabbat – I had a restful day spent in prayer and contemplation, hanging out with friends and family, truly demonstrating that I was not a slave to anyone or anything—not even a slave to my desire to be a good rabbi! And somehow, despite the day off, the deceased still received an appropriately respectful burial.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.”
“It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.” Most of us are not consciously materialistic. Most of us, if asked, would say that having time with friends and family, having time to relax, maybe even having time to consider great questions like God and the universe, is more important than making money. But for many people in contemporary society those are empty words. The Sabbath gives us an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is. We say those things are important – now here’s 25 hours a week with which to prove it. The law clears the path – the law clears our calendars and turns off our electronic labor saving devices, but it’s up to us to sense the spirit and to appreciate the wonderful gift of 25 hours a week liberated from the demands of work, chores, and technology.
The midrash brings a wonderful story that ties together the seven days of creation, the seventh day, seven days of Passover. The midrash in Exodus Rabah explains
“Remember the sabbath day (Ex. XX, 8),” and remember the miracles God did for you in Egypt and the anniversary of the day of your departure, as it says: “Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt (ib. XIII, 3).” We have no leavened bread witgh us for seven days, corresponding to the seven days which intervened between the redemption and the dividing of the Red Sea. Just as there were seven days of creation at the beginning, and just as the Sabbath is observed at the end of seven days, so shall these seven days of Passover be kept each year. It is like a king who married a wife from a city across the sea, but the waves surged high around her before she arrived at his place. He then said to her: “Do not remember all the waves that passed over you, but only that day on which you were delivered from them. Then I want you to think of me and to make it a day of rejoicing each year. So is it with Israel: God appeared to them in order to redeem them, but see how many huge waves had passed over them in the meanwhile. But He wrought salvation for them and exhorted them to rejoice on those days year by year, as it says: “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye righteous.”
The Talmud tells us that the Sabbath is 1/60th of olam haba, the world to come. Six days a week we struggle and toil. Six days a week the waves surge all around us. The Sabbath liberates us from all that. The Sabbath recalls Creation; the rules of the Sabbath provide us with the time to appreciate God’s Creation, time to stop and smell the flowers, time to go for a walk, time to sit outside and appreciate God’s wonders.
And that, for me, is the connection between yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt and the Sabbath. “Remember you were a slave” – therefore, don’t be a slave today. God lovingly gave us the rules that we need to live at least one day a week as truly free people.
So take advantage of it. You don’t have to work 24 x 7, around-the-clock. Make it 24 x 6 – after all, even God took a day off.