In this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, Bnei Yisrael is commanded for the fifth and final time in Sefer Shmot to keep Shabbat. What is so unique about each section that discusses Shabbat in Sefer Shmot that the topic of Shabbat warrants repetition? How is our parasha different from the rest of the parshiyot that elaborate on the commandment of Shabbat?
Sefer Shmot tells how Bnei Yisrael transformed from a slave nation into a united people with a set of laws focusing on Hashem and a lifestyle dedicated solely to His will. In short, the various mentions of Shabbat tell the story of this development.
Our first exposure to Shabbat is immediately following Kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea. During one of the greatest miracles of all times Bnei Yisrael surprises us all by complaining about the lack of food. We assume that a nation that sees Hashem split the sea will surely believe that He will also provide them with sustenance. Perhaps not. It is instinctual for people to worry about food before anything else. With a nation of slaves this is all the more true; every scrap of food was precious because tomorrow’s allowance was uncertain. God understands Bnei Yisrael’s predicament and speaks to them on their level. Hashem, then, uses the manna, which he provides for them to introduce Shabbat to the Jewish People. This is Bnei Yisrael’s first step towards becoming a free people. When God first gives Bnei Yisrael manna, He instructs them not to collect the manna on Shabbat, for Shabbat is a day of rest for God and therefore, for the Jewish nation, too.
Moshe said, “Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat for Hashem; today; you shall not find it in the field.” (Shmot 16:25)
Through the medium of food, God shows the Jews the most basic aspect of Shabbat, Shabbat as a day of rest. This is a concept that a slave nation that has worked with the land making straw bricks for many years is able to comprehend.
Shabbat is spoken about next in the Aseret Hadibrot, God’s greatest revelation to mankind. Here, God connects man and his household to celebrating Shabbat. As Rav Yonatan Grossman points out, the chiastic structure (A-B-C-B-A) of the commandment of Shabbat focuses our attention on the middle pasuk,
You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. (Shmot 20:9)
Bnei Yisrael received the Torah several months after they had been freed. The people are now confident of their own personal survival and begin to think beyond themselves. Following suite, the Torah expands Shabbat from the individual to include his family.
Similarly, Shabbat is mentioned next in Parshat Mishpatim, within the context of the communal laws. The community is the next sphere of responsibility after the family. The notion of a person resting on Shabbat includes not just himself, not just his family, but his community, as well.
The focus of Shabbat changes radically in last week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, where Shabbat is mentioned after the commandments to construct the various parts of the Mishkan. As with Shabbat when mentioned in the Aseret Hadibrot, the psukim appear in chiastic structure. The climax of the Shabbat description is:
“Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; (Shmot 31:15)
Rav Grossman notes that this pasuk emphasizes the Kedusha aspect of Shabbat. The Shabbat day, itself, exudes holiness and is not merely a holiday shared between family and friends. Only after the construction of the Mishkan, a place that will allow Hashem’s divine presence to dwell among the Jews, can Bnei Yisrael comprehend the concept of Kedusha and its introspective properties. They are now ready to embrace a Shabbat that also carries with it Hashem’s divine presence.
The last appearance of Shabbat in Sefer Shmot is mentioned after the episode of the Golden calf. According to many commentaries, the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat in our psukim is a way to atone for the sin. Bnei Yisrael is able to understand the concept of Kedusha and its religious significance, but they are unable to look beyond the four walls of the Mishkan and see the God’s holiness inherent everywhere.
Six days you shall work and on the seventh days it should be for you Holy, a Shabbat Shabbaton for Hashem, whoever does work will be put to death. (Shmot 35:2)
Hashem tells the Jews that even the Mishkan does not take precedence over the Kedusha of Shabbat. Bnei Yisrael created the Golden Calf because they were not able to feel or see God when Moshe had failed to return. Shabbat, here, is a way to refocus Bnei Yisrael’s attention on God’s omnipresence-the Jews may have built the Mishkan as a dwelling place for God, but is not the only place in which He dwells.
We see through the development of Shabbat, the Jewish nation transforms from a nation of slaves to a nation of God, from a nation that could not think beyond tomorrow’s meal to a nation that is able to accept the incorporeity of God’s omnipresence. As they grow, so does their understanding of Shabbat and of Hashem. But of course, this is just the basis for Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem. Shmot merely lays the foundation for the descriptions of Shabbat in Vayikra, where the Torah begins to explore the unity of God and Bnei Yisrael on Shabbat.
May we all learn from Bnei Yisrael’s maturation in Sefer Shmot and merit to see the Kedusha inherent in Shabbat in everything we do, wherever we may dwell.