It’s Not About You

Exodus 21:1-24:18

By Peretz Rodman

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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Most of us have learned to be wary of people who offer us too many reasons to do what they want us to do. If my children list five different reasons why I need to drive over to the shopping district, I suspect that a sixth reason lurks behind them all: their “need” to rent a video, perhaps.

It happens, then, with some frequency, that I am put on guard by the language of the kiddush that begins the Shabbat evening meal each Friday night. After reciting verses from Genesis that recall the original cosmic Shabbat observed by God at the close of the week of Creation, we encounter a barrage of motive clauses, some phrased obliquely, others more directly, exhorting us to observe the rabbinic tradition’s Shabbat restrictions and prescriptions:

• God has made us holy through the commandments — Shabbat among them.

• God has set us apart as a special people, giving us Shabbat as a possession to be inherited from our parents and passed down to our children. (A guilt-inducing ploy if ever we’ve heard one!)

• Our Shabbat is a reminder of that primeval divine Shabbat.

• Shabbat reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt. (Wait! How so? … No time to consider this. Kiddush continues.)

• God has chosen us and granted us sanctity.

• This gift of Shabbat is a token of God’s love and favor.

• [The blessing reaches a final crescendo:] It is none other than God who has declared this day holy!

The daytime kiddush consists of verses that focus on parallel themes: Creation as a paradigm for our terrestrial week of six days of labor and one of rest, and Shabbat as the trademark component of the covenantal relationship of God and the Jewish people. Another overload of justifications for a demand; my suspicious side is aroused again.

How different, then, and how pristinely simple is the explanation of Shabbat’s function and importance in this week’s Torah reading. Exodus 23:12 tells us plainly, “Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that the son of your handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed.” No cosmic Creator, no historic covenant, no love and favor, and only the most subtle hint of a connection to the Exodus from Egypt.

In contrast with all the pious appeals to our guilt or our vanity in the clauses about Shabbat in some other places in the Torah, here we are offered only a blunt statement that “it’s not about you.”

To the freeborn, independent Israelite farmer, a landowner on his own soil, the author of Exodus says: “You may have the luxury of taking time off from work when you see fit. You can have the satisfaction of knowing that your labor is producing wealth for you. While Shabbat may teach you there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth, that may be a lesson you don’t need to be taught. But there are other beings in this world that need a Shabbat. Your animals, too, need rest. The indentured worker, whose labor brings you wealth, also needs and deserves a day when you do not dictate his schedule. The same is true of the foreign workers and resident aliens who must labor on your land and your neighbors’ land because they do not have their own. Shabbat is for their benefit.”

Had the liturgy of Shabbat been created by the Jewish socialists rather than the rabbis, perhaps Exodus 23:12 is the verse that would have preceded the kiddush.

* * *

In a surprising American twist to the history of interpretation of our verse, Judah Leib Ginsburg (1885-1946), a rabbi in Denver, comments on it in his Hebrew book “The Crown of Shabbat,” published in St. Louis in 1940 or 1941. Ginsburg offers an allegorical, spiritualized reading of this straightforward injunction. Noting that Shabbat rest is designed to assist the soul as well as the body, Ginsburg points out that both our verse and the two preceding it, which call for opening one’s fallow fields and vineyards to the poor during the Sabbatical year, flow from the general call in verse 9 not to “oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“A person’s need to tend to the soul within,” writes Ginsburg, “partakes of the mitzvah to love the stranger, for in this lowly world, the soul is considered a stranger in a foreign land. Therefore we must refrain from oppressing it, but instead set aside times during which we will occupy ourselves with sacred matters.” A competing argument for Shabbat observance, true — but still a compelling one.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based teacher and translator, and associate director of Ta Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning.

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