In this week’s parsha, the foundations of the Universe are affixed and cemented into place with the giving of the Torah. Central to all of the laws in the Decalogue is the order to keep the holy day of Shabbat. Many of the 10 commandments, such as not murdering, not stealing, not coveting or not swearing falsely, are binary in nature and their observance is subject to a momentary decision – they are situational. Shabbat is considered by many to be the backbone of all the Torah and it is pervasive; it is not a momentary decision nor is it situational. Shabbat has an affixed time and its arrival is not subject to alteration by human observation, as are all other Jewish holidays before the calendar was set, Rosh Chodesh, and thus Yomim Tovim, was declared after two witnesses came forward to say they had seen the moon). Shabbat is the great gift G-d has bestowed upon the Jewish people. Yet many, even if they observe it, do not know the awesome power of Shabbat, and those who do not observe Shabbat do not know what they are giving up.
So, what does Shabbat do for us? An analysis of many of the laws of Shabbat reveals that it is designed to be life sustaining, life prolonging and relationship enhancing. Family ties are tightened by having meals together, bonds between husband and wife are refastened, and loneliness is abolished by communal prayer and socializing. On busy weeknights it can be difficult to quiet our minds and get to sleep. On Shabbat, we have prepared our bodies and minds for rest and are then able to fall into the most luxurious Shabbat nap.
Shabbat reorients our perspective on life as well. The Gemara in Shabbos and Brachos mentions that when one takes a large step (Pseach Gasah) one loses a part of one’s eyesight. The solution to regaining the lost vision is to look intently into the Kiddush cup on Shabbat.
The Shem Meshmuel explains this quizzical Talmudic assertion by understanding that a “large step” is taken by one who rushes about, a “type A” personality, “a mover and a shaker.” This person believes he is the first cause, that he creates and he destroys – things come to be because of his actions. As a result of this egoistic mindset, he loses proper perspective, his vision becomes blurry and he does not see the world clearly. By looking into the Kiddush cup intently he understands that G-d runs the world even as he rests on Shabbat. Shabbat is the time to recognize the supremacy of G-d over man and creation. These concepts wash over his mind and his eyes become focused with the proper, more accurate, perspective. Shabbat is the corrective lens to restore clear vision to man.
But, the benefits of Shabbat are far greater than this.
The Sfat Emet writes that when Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, in one instant his brothers experience and relive all of the self-doubt, recriminations, guilt and regret they experienced over the years. Relative to the verse “and his brothers were not able to answer him,” the Midrash applies the adage, “Oy lanu m’yom HaDin – Woe is to us, for we will encounter the Day of Judgment.” On that awesome day, all of our misdeeds will be accounted for. No excuses or answers can be given because only truth reigns. Like the brothers, we will have to reconsider and painfully reflect upon our misdeeds.
One can ask, with all the temptations and swaying of our hearts in this world, what chance do we have to become righteous? How can we guard against the negativity pulling at us? How can we arrive at our Day of Judgment having a chance of possessing a pure soul?
The Sfat Emet quotes and explains the Holy Zohar, “One who fears Shabbat will fear embarrassment” as follow: Our earthly Shabbat is mei’ayin olam haba, of the essence of the world to come, which is entirely Shabbat and where all is atoned and accounted for. Thus, because there is atonement there is also embarrassment and, thus, with every Shabbat there is atonement for the private things one did. And if one merits receiving the illumination of Shabbat, one should accordingly blush for the atonement one receives.
How does Shabbat atone for us?
During the week we do many things contrary to the will of Hashem. We act for our own benefit and sometimes forget that Hashem runs the world. On Shabbat, we physically and mentally remove ourselves from all activities we have engaged in during the week. Why and what is our motivation? We stop and rest solely because we believe we have been commanded by G-d to do so. On Shabbat we “hand over the keys” and utterly subjugate ourselves to G-d. The abnegation of our will to our Creator is the essence of atonement. By giving ourselves up to G-d it is as if we prostrate ourselves in front of Him and say, “G-d, You are our King! We have no will of our own. We solely do as You command us!” In this way Shabbat functions as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The atonement we receive results from our coronation of G-d and our subjugation to Him.
A number of years ago while visiting Israel, I planned to stay in Jerusalem for Shabbat. On Friday I took a bus from Rannana to Jerusalem. The passengers on the bus ranged from the nonobservant to the fervently religious. When arriving at their stop, prior to stepping off, each passenger turned to the driver and offered the greeting of “Shabbat Shalom.” I realized that Shabbat meant different things to so many people. In fact, Shabbat means something different to all who observe it and the degree to which they observe it.
Shabbat is in time what the Beit HaMikdash is in space. We enter Shabbat as the Kohain Gadol entered the Holy of Holies: in special garments, with a purity of giving ourselves over to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and not moving a limb without His consent. Observing Shabbat is one’s ultimate pronouncement that “Hashem Hu HaElokim.”
By mindfully entering Shabbat, knowing that we have chosen to observe it, we gain its emotional, physical and spiritual blessings which we then carry into the coming week.