Va’etchanan–Rest as Freedom

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.  (Deut. 5:13-15)

“It is known how great a rest [the Sabbath] procures.  Because of it the seventh part of the life of every individual consists in pleasure and repose from the fatigue and weariness for which there is no escape, either for the young or old.”  (Maimonides,* Guide of the Perplexed)

Our parsha this week includes Moses’ retelling of the 10 commandments.  A few things are stated differently this time, notably the explanation of the sabbath (the differences are in bold above).  We are more used to the version in Exodus, which grounds the Sabbath in creation. Deuteronomy grounds the Sabbath in redemption, in the liberation and deliverance from Egypt.  Here, Israel observes the Sabbath as a sign of their freedom.

At the Passover Seder, there is a quaint custom that the participants “recline” at table as a sign of one’s freedom.    This custom alludes to Roman feasts, where the wealthy spread themselves out before low tables (if you’re sitting in a chair with arms, you can insert a pillow next to you and slump to one side).  But the Sabbath is a far more substantial assertion of freedom.    It is, in its ideal form, a day when no one has a “master,” when no one can tell us what to do.

*And if you’ve ever seen Maimonides’ account of his daunting daily schedule as court physician, you’ll appreciate how much the observance of Shabbat must have contributed to his sanity and longevity, to say nothing of his piety.

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