‘You shall speak to the Children of Israel, saying: However, you must keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am God Who makes you holy.’ (Exodus 31:13)
Every covenant in the Torah is accompanied by an ‘ot,’ a sign. Following the flood God makes a covenant to never destroy the world again, and the sign is the rainbow (Genesis 9:13). In Hebrew the word for rainbow is ‘keshet’, the same as for a bow in a ‘bow and arrow.’ When approaching an adversary in peace archers turn the curve of their bows towards themselves as a sign of non-aggression. So too, God turns the curve of the rainbow heavenward, a symbol that no destruction will come.
Another covenant-symbol is the berit milah (Genesis 17:11). God makes a covenant with Abraham that his descendant will become a nation, that God will always be with them, and that they will inherit the land. A reminder of that promise is the circumcision with its apparent symbolism relating to Abraham’s progeny.
In this week’s parashah Shabbat is also called a sign. We recite these words (veshameru) during the Shabbat evening prayers and in Kiddush of Shabbat day. What is the meaning of this sign and what covenant is it recalling? Rabbi Menahem Leibtag of Yeshivat Har Etzion says shabbat is the symbol of the covenant at Sinai. It is the fourth of the Ten Commandment, and it is the symbol of that covenant. In what way though, is Shabbat a sign? Shababt recalls Creation, so shouldn’t Shabbat actually be a universal symbol and not particular to the Jews?
Rashbam (Rabbi Shemuel bar Meir, 12th century France, grandson of Rashi) writes that Shabbat is a ‘sign’ of the covenant for God says to the Jewish people ‘You rest as I do, for you are My people (Exodus 31:13).’ True, Shabbat expresses a universal idea, that God is the source of creation, however when we celebrate Shabbat we are expressing our desire to be as Godly as possible. This is similar to a rabbinic dictum concerning God’s thirteen attributes that appear at the end of our parashah (ibid 34:6). The Talmud says (Rosh Hashanah 17b) that just as God is merciful, so shall we be merciful…’ The covenant at Sinai communicated Gods partnership with the Jewish people, and so God gave Shabbat, God’s day of rest, as a gift to the Jewish people (see Rashi, ibid 31:13).
This idea is expressed in the shabbat morning Shahrit amidah. There we say, ‘The Lord our God has not given this day to the other peoples of the earth, nor has God caused idolaters to inherit it. Gentiles know no repose in its rest; but the Shabbat day You have given in love to Israel Your people, the seed of Jacob whom You have chosen.’ May we be blessed to always recognize Shabbat as the great gift that it is, and through it may we come closer to our Creator.