A Place of Refuge
How low can a Jew fall in status? Even when a Jew is overcome by
such difficult circumstances that he is sold into slavery, he still retains
some of his former dignity and identity. At least, he finds himself in the
home of a co-religionist with a similar life style. However, enslavement
to a gentile resident of Eretz Yisrael, to bear the yoke of an alien
master, that is the ultimate social degradation possible for a Jew. How
can this unfortunate slave maintain his ties to family and tradition under
such conditions? The Torah, at the end of this week’s portion, directs
him to hold fast two commandments - spurning idolatry and keeping the
Why does the Torah single out these two particular
commandments? We can easily understand why the Torah emphasizes
the prohibition against idolatry, since this is the very antithesis of
Judaism. But why the emphasis on the Sabbath more than on other
observances such as wearing tefillin or studying the Torah?
We find a similar emphasis on the Sabbath in the Midrash. When
Moses was a young boy growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he was
extremely disturbed by the physical affliction and spiritual decline of his
Jewish brethren. It occurred to him that if the Jewish people would be
allowed to observe the Sabbath, they would survive the Egyptian
bondage as an exalted people. The Midrash relates that Moses
suggested to Pharaoh that he could significantly increase the
productivity of his Jewish slaves by allowing them a day of rest to
replenish their depleted stores of energy. Pharaoh followed this advice,
and the productivity did indeed increase. But at the same time, the
Jewish people were able to congregate and celebrate the Sabbath, thus
ensuring their spiritual survival. Once again, we are presented with this
question: What special powers did Moses see in the Sabbath as an
antedote to enslavement?
The rabbi of a certain well-known Ukrainian city was famous for
always arguing with the Creator in defense of the Jewish people. Late
one Passover night, he ran into the square and called an emergency
meeting of all the Jews in the city.
“Quick!” he said. “Bring me all your tobacco. Right now!”
“But, rabbi,” protested the people. “That is contraband. Anyone
caught with it would be instantly executed.”
But the rabbi would accept no excuses, and sure enough, little by
little, the pile of tobacco in the square began to grow quite large.
The rabbi immediately called for another contraband item, and once
again, he was greeted by incredulous protests. But he persisted, and
slowly but surely, a second pile materialized as well.
“And now,” ordered the rabbi, “bring me all your bread!”
This time, however, all his persistence was to no avail. Not a single
“Master of the Universe!” the rabbi cried out to the heavens. “How
wonderful are your people! Look at all this contraband. All the police
forces and threats of execution could not prevent them from collecting
this material. But one word from You forbidding bread on Passover,
spoken over three thousand years ago, and there in not one crumb in
the whole city.”
The word of the Creator is an impenetrable wall, more real than
piles of brick and mortar or a battalion of soldiers. Yet it is a spiritual
wall, visible to the soul but not the eye. On the Sabbath, when Hashem
commands us to rest and refrain from all sorts of mundane activities, He
is in effect surrounding us with spiritual walls composed of His holy
words. When we enter within these sanctified walls, we are transported
to higher world, a place ideally suited to communing with our inner
selves, to contemplating the timeless truths of the Universe, to bonding
with the Creator. This is the secret of the magical power of the Sabbath
to touch the Jewish soul. Were we to emulate the Sabbath observance
on an ordinary weekday, it would have no effect - because it the divine
commandment that sets it apart.
For the unfortunate Jewish slaves, in Egypt as in other times, the
Sabbath was the perfect place of refuge. By keeping the Sabbath they
could escape the muindane world into a transcendent abode where their
souls could feast on the divine aura, reinforcing their identity as exalted
Jews even in a state of slavery.
In our own lives, we often find ourselves swept away by the
maelstrom of seemingly endless mundane concerns and activities. Life
literally enslaves us. There are bills to pay, things to do, obligations to
fulfill, a never-ending succession of miles to go before we sleep. But on
the Sabbath, we have the opportunity to step away from it all, to enter
this spiritual edifice constructed of the divine word and enjoy a day of
uniterrupted peace and spirituality. This is the special gift Hashem
reserved for the Jewish people, a gift that sanctifies, enriches and
elevates all the days of our lives.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.