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Parshas Va’eschanan (5772)

Shabbos is NOT a Day Off

In the Ten Commandments, which are repeated in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Va’eschanan, we find a very strange anomaly. In the Fourth Commandment, in which G-d commands the Jewish people to safeguard the Sabbath day to sanctify it, the Torah adds the words “as the Lord, your G-d, has commanded you” (see Deuteronomy 5:12).

As well, in the Fifth Commandment, which is to honor your father and mother, the Torah adds “as the Lord, your G-d, has commanded you”.

What is the point of adding these words – and what do they even mean? After all, according to our tradition, all ten of the commandments were commanded by G-d, so why did the Torah need to write this obvious point regarding the fourth and fifth commandments?

Rashi quotes the Talmud in Sanhedrin 56b which states that the Torah’s intent in adding these words was to highlight the fact that G-d had already commanded the Jewish people to observe the Sabbath and honor their parents before Mount Sinai at a place called Marah. As the Torah tells us in Parshas Beshalach, when the Jewish people had just left the Red Sea and had camped at Marah, “There [at Marah] He established for [the nation] a statute and a judgment …” (see Exodus 15:25). And the Talmud explains this to mean that G-d gave the Jewish people a few commandments including the Sabbath and Honoring Parents for them to practice in advance of their receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The question still remains, though, for of what benefit was it for the Jewish people to be reminded at Mount Sinai that they had already received these two commandments at Marah?

The Ksav Sofer (Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer ZT”L, one of the leading rabbis of Hungarian Jewry in the second half of the 19th century, who was known by the name of his main scholarly work Ksav Sofer) offers a beautiful answer which sheds light on the very essence of the commandments to keep the Sabbath and to honor one’s parents.

He explains that many Jews, after receiving a commandment to rest every seventh day, could easily and erroneously think that the idea and ultimate purpose of this “day of rest” is merely to “take the day off” in order to relax and rejuvenate after a long work-week.

And don’t get me wrong, that certainly is part of what Shabbos is all about. In fact, the commentators on the Siddur (prayer book) explain the opening sentence in the Shabbos morning Amidah (the Shemoneh Esrei prayer): “Yismach Moshe b’matnas chelko – Moses should rejoice in the gift of his portion”, based on a Midrash which teaches that when Moses was a still a child growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he convinced the king to proclaim a day of rest for his enslaved Jewish brethren from all their hard work. And the day he chose was the Shabbos, the same Shabbos that G-d would later command the Jewish people to observe after they left Egypt. Moses should therefore “rejoice” on Shabbos, the “gift of his portion”.

So we see that a definite element of this holy day is to rest and take time off from the “enslavement” of the work-week. Yet Shabbos is meant to be so much more than that. It is a time to be spent reconnecting with one’s family, with oneself, and, most importantly, with our Father in Heaven. It is a time to leave behind the mundane, material world and envelop oneself in spirituality, through prayer, song, Shabbos meals and the study of Torah. It is a time to bolster our emunah (faith) in G-d, and to remind ourselves that since this world and everything in it was created by a purposeful Creator, it must therefore have ultimate reason and purpose. (After all, if Shabbos is just a day off, we now have Sunday for that – so what do we need Shabbos for??)

To make sure the Jewish people never forget what the Shabbos is truly meant to be, explains the Ksav Sofer, G-d reminded them at Mount Sinai that He had already commanded them to keep the Shabbos at a place called Marah. At Marah, the Jews had manna from heaven for food and didn’t have to work at all during the week! Yet G-d still commanded them there about the holy Shabbos, because Shabbos is much more than a day off.

A similar point can be made with regard to the commandment of Honoring Parents. Many people think that the reason why we have to show respect to our parents is because they were so good to us while we were growing up – they diapered us, fed us, taught us to walk and to talk, clothed us, paid for our schooling, etc. And that is certainly true.

But that can’t be the essence of this commandment. After all, we are obligated to show gratitude to anyone who takes care of us and benefits us in any way. So what’s so special about the gratitude we show our parents that it merits a special commandment?

The deeper reason why we honor our parents is because they represent our link to Mount Sinai. We show them respect and gratitude for transmitting Torah and Jewish values to us, without which we would be disconnected from our past and bereft of a future. We are therefore obligated to honor our parents even if they never cared for us at all as were growing up.

To bring this point home, explains the Ksav Sofer, G-d told the Jewish people at Mount Sinai to honor their parents as He had already commanded them at Marah – a place where their children were miraculously fed, clothed and looked after by G-d Himself, while the parents did nothing at all. Even so, G-d commanded them to show honor to their parents for being ambassadors of Judaism to the next generation.

[By the way, it follows logically from this that if one’s parent asks him to violate the Torah and its commandments – thus ceasing to be a true ambassador of Judaism and link to Mount Sinai – the child is not obligated to honor his parent’s wishes, even if the parent fed and clothed the child the entire time he was growing up. Indeed, the Code of Jewish Law (see Yoreh De’ah 240:15) rules that one is not allowed to listen to his parents when they ask him to transgress a Torah law against the wishes of G-d, his Father in Heaven.]

May we all merit to appreciate the Shabbos and our parents for all that they truly represent – even while we are enjoying the day off.

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