Shabbat as a Reminder of the Exodus
Connecting the commandment to observe the Sabbath with the Israelites' rescue from Egyptian slavery, the Torah makes Shabbat a symbol of compassion and humane treatment for those in need of liberation.
Reprinted with permission from The Fourth Commandment, published by Bell Tower.
Exodus or Creation?
No mention of creation or God resting or the blessing the Sabbath received appears in the Shabbat commandment in the book of Deuteronomy. Instead, Moses states, "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there... therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." This explanation appears somewhat removed from the day itself, not as closely tied to it as the other [which links it to the seventh day of creation on which God rests]. How does God's freeing Israel from Egypt lead to sanctifying the Sabbath?
The answer unfolds in layers. To begin with, the image of God in this version of the commandment matches the image of God in the first commandment, which reads, "I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt...." This is a familiar God. This is the God who works through history, the God whose liberation of the Israelites from Egypt forms a central theme of the Bible and lies at the core of Jewish life. In addressing the Israelites shortly before his death, Moses is speaking to people who witnessed that liberation or heard about it directly from their parents or other family members.
For them, God as creator may seem remote. God as redeemer is the God they know. Calling up that aspect of the divine in the Sabbath commandment stirs in them memories of the slavery they suffered and God's feats in delivering them from it. Observing the Sabbath God ordained is a way of memorializing their deliverance and honoring the deity who brought it about.
But in addressing the Israelites, Moses is also addressing generations to come, for as the Passover Haggadah teaches, every one of us must view ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt. This version of the Sabbath command brings us, too, closer to the God we know most about, the God who freed our ancestors from oppression and who stands for justice and liberation.
The Israelites' Experience Connects Shabbat with Liberation
On one level, then, the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy is about remembering the Israelites' slavery and showing gratitude to God for redeeming them and their descendants from it. On a deeper level, it is about translating that memory and redemption into treating others with kindness and generosity, especially those who are weak and vulnerable as the Israelites once were.
A midrash relates that when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God, the angels objected. "Ruler of the universe," they complained, "You propose to give that precious treasure to a creature of flesh and blood!" Urged by God to respond to them, Moses asked, "What is written in this Torah You are giving me?"