Each Shabbat, as part of the Friday evening Kiddush, we recite the words, “zeher l’tzi’at Mitzrayim,” “recalling the Exodus from Egypt.” In other words, Shabbat is meant to remind us of the Exodus, of our liberation from slavery.
It seems an odd juxtaposition, because for many Jews — those who don’t live comfortably within a traditional Jewish lifestyle — Shabbat is a day of restrictions rather than a day of freedom that we could connect to the Exodus. Shabbat tells us what we cannot do — no working at your job, no cooking, no shopping, no writing — no, no, no. Moreover, we all know that Shabbat was established in commemoration of Creation, when God rested on the seventh day. As it says in the Ten Statements, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11)
However, there’s a second, slightly different version of the Ten Statements in parshat Va’et’chanan, where it says, “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)
As the Torah tells us, Shabbat is a definitive sign of freedom because slaves don’t get an opportunity to rest. We recline at the seder to show that we are free people. And our ancestors were given Shabbat even before they arrived at Sinai, so that they would realize that they were truly free.
In fact, the commandment to observe Shabbat, to rest on the seventh day, was given in connection with the first appearance of the manna. This was so that the people would know not only that they were no longer subject to taskmasters, but also — and this is an even more important lesson — that they wouldn’t starve if they stopped working for a day. They needed to learn that human beings must feed their souls as well as their bodies.
The purpose of Pesach is fulfilled in Shavuot — we were taken out of Egypt so that we might come to Sinai to receive the Torah. We traded the orders of human masters for the mitzvot of the Master of the Universe.
Yet it’s all too easy to slip back into slavery. Today we often play the role of our own taskmasters. We expect to be constantly busy, multi-tasking, working, or on call 24/7/365. Our children’s days are filled with school, homework, sports, music lessons, dance classes, and even volunteer activities designed to shape the perfect college resume. Almost every week there’s another news story about how the vast majority of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. We seem to feel that if we stop running for even a few moments, it will all come crashing down.
Shabbat says, “No!” — there’s more to life than work. Unplug the computer, turn off the cell phone, don’t even talk about what’s going on at the office. The laws of Shabbat are not restrictions, but opportunities to be free from the burdens, stresses, and complexities of the six days of labor. Shabbat comes each week to teach us that we are free to be more than drones; there’s more to life than work, deadlines, and productivity. Freedom means taking time for God, family, friends — even yourself.
We are free people, and we must be careful not to willingly enslave ourselves. Pesach is called “the season of our liberation,” but it is not enough to embrace freedom only once a year. We need Shabbat. “It is the first among our days of sacred assembly that recall the Exodus from Egypt.”