Shabbat is described in a number of ways. It is called a reminder of creation and in particular the work of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When we pause and observe Shabbat we recall that God ordered the heavens and the earth. According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, we affirm our belief in God by celebrating Shabbat.
Shabbat is also called a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. Again when we mark the seventh day we recall that God freed us from Egypt. More importantly our observance is a testament to our freedom. Only a free people can set a day apart. Only a free person can set out on a vacation (unless of course a winter storm enslaves us!). To choose to sing our Shabbat songs and prayers together is a reminder that we are free. We can choose to go to services or not. When we do, however, our hearts are lifted together and our souls can be refreshed.
In this week’s portion Shabbat is also called a sign of the covenant. We read the words of the V’shamru prayer that we sing at Shabbat services: “The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It is a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17)
Circumcision is also called a sign of the covenant. The tefillin that are bound on the head and arm are also signs. They are, however, physical. By the way the rainbow is also deemed a sign of the promise that God made to Noah following the flood. How I long for such a sign on this day! Yet the rainbow is not a sign of the Jewish covenant. Tefillin, circumcision and Shabbat are signs of the pact made between God and the Jewish people.
Are these signs for us or for God? Does the Torah intend these signs to serve as reminders to God of God’s commitments to the Jewish people? This could be one reading of these texts. Or do these instead remind us of our obligations to God, the Jewish people and Jewish history? How can a day serve as a sign? It is self-evident how physical signs can serve as constant reminders. How can Shabbat remind us? How can a day set apart, a day of rest and refreshment prod us?
Every week we sing the words of V’shamru. Have we taken the time to ponder its words and meaning? The Zionist thinker Ahad Haam wrote: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”
Shabbat is not a sign for God. It is not a sign for us. It is instead a sign for the future. Shabbat lights tomorrow.
And I offer the following to those who are observing Valentine’s Day. These words are from the greatest love poem ever written, a few verses from Song of Songs, a biblical poem filled with passion, eroticism and love.
You have captured my heart,
My own, my bride,
You have captured my heart
With one glance of your eyes,
With one coil of your necklace.
How sweet is your love,
My own, my bride!
How much more delightful your love than wine,
Your ointments more fragrant
Than any spice! (Song of Songs 4:9-10)