Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Voice Calls from Sinai

“Observe” and “Remember” in one act of speech, the One and Only God made us hear.”
(Lecha Dodi, Sacks translation)
A voice called out from Sinai, exclusive and unique in its ability to express one substantive principal in way suited to the needs of each generation.
The essence of Shabbat is a work stoppage that is obligatory for everyone once a week, but already in the Written Torah, that essence takes on different forms.
In Exodus (20:8-11), the Israelites who left Egypt heard:
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work: you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is therein, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
It was important that the newly freed slaves hear that Shabbat was embedded in creation. After experiencing uninterrupted labor throughout the years of slavery, they may have found it hard to believe that the new Master who had defeated Pharaoh with great force, and was now handing down orders did not also demand constant work.
The lives of the desert generation were completely different from life in Egypt. For forty years they ate manna, literally. They built the Tabernacle, they marched and they camped. Then, until the next journey, they gathered and ate manna. They were familiar with Shabbat because on Fridays they needed to gather a double portion because none would descend from heaven the next day. For them, Shabbat was part of creation, built into their natural/supernatural life routine. What was foreign to them was continuous work and employer-employee relations. On the border of the Land, just before beginning a naturally productive life, they needed to hear a different Torah:
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Eternal your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, 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... (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
Here the Torah emphasizes solidarity based on the memory of slavery (which may have begun to fade), clarifies that the conquest and building of the Land do not override Shabbat, and emphasizes that the people should not imagine themselves as employers like the Egyptians. It is forbidden to learn from Pharaoh, there is life beyond work.
During the first Babylonian exile, another voice strengthened Shabbat with new meaning. With the Temple in ruins, the Israelites’ religious life contracted, leaving Shabbat as the main communal expression of Jewish identity in a foreign land (Moshe Greenberg, “The Experience of Shabbat”).
s  Shabbat of creation with an avoidance of creative work.
s  Shabbat as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt with refreshing rest for all.
s  Shabbat that unites the community.
These are the three main voices that accompanied (in varying mixes) Shabbat until the modern era and early Zionism. Upon their return to Israel, prominent leaders fought for Shabbat to be kept even among “secular” Zionists, as Haim Nahman Bialik urged members of the Kevutzat Geva:
It is Shabbat, not the culture of oranges or potatoes, that preserved the existence of our people during all the days of its wanderings, and now that we are returning to the land of our forefathers, you want to discard it like an unwanted object?
Without Shabbat, there is no Divine image and no human image in the world.
About 80 years have passed. Social and economic life in Israel and around the world has changed. For many of us, Shabbat is primarily a time devoted to family, community and friends. These are very important, precious things. Every family or group that takes a break from the race of life and sits together around the table or in another quiet place is doing something important and holy.
But I hear another voice coming forth from Sinai, a voice that I believe we need urgently, before our souls wither in a desert of plenty. A call to stand against consumerism, driven by frantic shopping, and challenge the culture in which a person is primarily a consumer, and society exists to serve the economy rather than the opposite.
In his commentary on Deuteronomy, biblical scholar and Christian homilist Walter Brueggemann makes a strong connection between the fourth commandment – observing Shabbat – and the fifth – honoring father and mother. The people addressed by the commandments are adults. Therefore, the parents we are commanded to respect are even older, and include those who have ceased to make an  economic contribution. Shabbat observance and respect for parents come together to confirm – no, to declare – that human life is not limited to productivity.
Human life is not limited to productivity. The economy exists to serve society.
A call comes from Sinai to add another consciousness to the day of rest and the family celebration: a consciousness of resistance to the enticements of consumerism, a consciousness that insists that we must not define our lives only by economic standards.
“Without Shabbat, there is no Divine image and no human image in the world.”
Shabbat Shalom
Parashat Va'ethanan, Hod veHadar, 5777

Recommendation for further reading: Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now

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