Each Shabbat, the Jewish family gathers around the richly laid dinner table on Shabbat, enjoys a festive meal to the light of the candles, and makes a statement: “We are certain that the world has a Creator who fashioned the universe in six days, and rested on the seventh. To demonstrate our conviction that this is the truth, we refrain from creative work on this day and devote it to cultivating our spirit, nurturing the bonds of family and friendship, and strengthening our bond with our Maker.”
The fact that we take care not to perform creative acts on Shabbat constitutes an acknowledgment that it is not Man who “owns” this planet. There is a greater Power, who fashioned the universe and remains its uncontested Master. Therefore we acknowledge His sovereignty and obey His wishes. We follow His instructions as to how we should utilize the universe He created for us, and are confident that He knows the greatest benefit we can derive from the world He has given us.
During the workweek, man is easily misled into feeling that he is the master of his own fate. Each week, we mark the seventh day as Shabbat to re-enforce the message that we are but “guests” on an extended visit in this world. It is G-d, not man, who fashioned the universe and continues to reign over it.
The uninitiated might take this as an insult to man's exalted status in the universe, a lowering of his status and dignity. Just the opposite is the case; the Shabbat is a medal of distinction bestowed by the King Himself, as an indication of His fondness for His chosen people:
“However, you must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and between you for your generations...” (Exodus 31:13).
“It is a great sign between us, testifying that I have chosen you by bestowing upon you My day of rest for resting.”
From the day of our Exodus from Egypt, we were transformed into free men. The Shabbat teaches us what should be the nature of that freedom. To be free does not only mean casting off the shackles of bondage. Neither is it merely releasing a group of people from subjugation by another nation. The observance of Shabbat as prescribed by the Torah demonstrates to man that he can free himself not only from the shackles of others, but also from the yoke which he himself places upon his own shoulders.
On weekdays the pressures do not let up, but for the observant Jew there is always relief in sight. Shabbat is never more than three days behind him or another three days ahead of him. He knows that, regardless of the staggering burden he carries on his shoulders today, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight. Shabbat will come, extricate him from the ganglion of technological devices which hold him prisoner to their bells, whistles, and flashing lights. On the seventh day comes the blessed relief of the Shabbat and transports him to a realm of harmony and calm. In this temporary paradise, he will again be able to hear himself think, and to hearken to his inner self. He is free! He is again king over himself and his environment.
Although his release is for but one day of the week, it is supportive and constant in that he is certain that it will always be an intrinsic part of his weekly cycle. Moreover, the Shabbat will always be the purpose and the highlight of all seven days. Once again he will experience the elevation of the seventh day which raises his soul to higher levels, so that he starts the following week a better, more spiritual person. On Shabbat, he experiences freedom to be true to his inner soul.
The Ten Plagues which preceded the Exodus correspond with the Ten Commandments. Both correlate with the Ten Utterances through which the world was created. Just as we find with Shabbat, each facet of the Ten Plagues was a lesson in G-d's sovereignty over the world.
This is the common factor between Shabbat and the Exodus; both come to consolidate our faith in G-d as the Creator of heaven and earth. Together they form a chain of faith whose links intertwine and together form the fabric of unswerving belief in Him “who spoke, and the world came into being.”
There is an additional link between the Exodus and Shabbat. Through a series of cunning, deceptive manipulation, Pharaoh and his government succeeded in depriving the Hebrews of their independence. Gradually they were cornered and transformed into a nation of slaves. Once they had succumbed, their days and their hours were no longer their own. The traditions handed down to them from their ancestors became only a memory of the past. To the next generation, they were only a vague reminder of the freedom that their grandparents had once enjoyed. Almost every trace of their Jewish tradition faded and disappeared into the past. Under the cruel whip of their Egyptian masters, the Hebrew slaves had not an extra moment to breathe, much less reflect on their situation and illustrious ancestors. They assimilated more and more of the degenerate society around them, and sank deeper and deeper into moral decline.
Had the Jewish People been able to observe their Shabbat during these decades of bondage, they would have had one day a week during which they could renew their bond with their Maker and with their heritage. There would be time for a personal evaluation and a chance to devise a plan for moral progress. On Shabbat they would also have had the time to tell their descendants about the great moral heights attained by their forefathers. Together with their offspring, they might have reviewed those traditions passed down from father to son, and passed their unique heritage on to their children and grandchildren. As it was, the cruel taskmasters made certain that no such handing down of Jewish tradition might transpire. This, too, was a pre-calculated tactic to avoid any thought of rebellion. For decades, the nation of slaves remained entrapped in the net of bondage to Pharaoh, with no route of escape open to them.
It was only during the final generation of their enslavement that Moses intervened with Pharaoh and requested that one rest day a week be allotted to the Hebrew slaves. He argued that this plan would enhance the slaves' general health, so that, in the long run, the government stood to gain. In actual fact, Moses was motivated by his desire to reinstate the observance of Shabbat; consequently, once Pharaoh agreed to the plan, he chose the seventh day as the “new” day of rest.
Decades later, when the Jewish People were about to leave the wilderness and take possession of their homeland, G-d commanded them: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt!” (Deuteronomy 8:14). Only forty years had passed since the day when Moses led the Jewish People out of the land in which they had suffered for generations. How many of their children have been wrested from their mothers to die a cruel death! How many had died at the whip of the heartless taskmasters! Could an entire nation forget the scars of such a traumatic and tragic past in the interval of only forty years? Could anyone possibly suggest that the Jewish People today can possibly forget the Holocaust, only decades after World War II came to a close?
Our Sages explain this commandment not as an injunction to recall the suffering of the enslavement in Egypt, but as a warning to recall – and avoid – the moral degeneration which accompanied that enslavement, because the Jews were denied the right to observe the Shabbat. G-d warned them: “Never again allow yourselves to forgo the blessings of Shabbat and the spiritual growth and elevation it brings with it. Never again allow yourselves to be hopelessly chained to the struggle for your daily bread, as though it were the sweat of your brow and not My blessings, raining down upon you like the Manna, which keep you alive. Never again allow yourselves to be severed from the Torah, your Tree of Life.”
Each week, the observance of Shabbat renews for us the sweet taste of the freedom which we gained so long ago through the Exodus from Egypt.