The fourth of the Ten Commandments is the observance of Shabbat. In Exodus, the Jews are commanded: “Remember (zachor) the Sabbath day” because “in six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day He rested.” In Deuteronomy, on the other hand, Jews are instructed to “Guard (shamor) the Sabbath day” because “you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”
In a society of near-absolute freedom, such as ours, where most people that one meets seem not to care about your heritage or how you choose to observe your religion, one might feel conflicted with the Torah. How then can Jews today relate to the understanding of Shabbat as a release from bondage and as a celebration of freedom?
Most people expect a conversation about Jews and freedom to be tied to Passover, but the fact that this is an essential element of the Shabbat experience every week clarifies that the release from Egypt is meant to be part of one’s essential Jewish consciousness.
In Hebrew, the name of Egypt is Mitzrayim, which can be translated as “from the narrows.” Each generation’s narrow place is different. In the earliest generations, it was the actual physical slavery, but for later generations the connection to a narrow place from which they were redeemed by God might simply have meant surviving a time of great persecution.
The current generations who live in a free and “enlightened” society, have a new and unique understanding of the concept of Mitzrayim. God took the Jewish people out of the confining restrictions of what was, until recently, almost always an anti-Semitic society. Now, more than ever, as we find ourselves in a wide-open society, the Jewish people must guard Shabbat. Society is no longer forcing Jews to be Jews…now it is up to the Jews to demonstrate their own desire to remain a part of this unique people. And as the great Hebrew philosopher Achad Ha’am once wrote, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
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