December 19, 2018

The Case for Shabbat as an Antidote to Modern Life

“In place of an economy built upon the profit motive—the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there never to be enough—the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. The Sabbath’s radicalism should be no surprise given the fact that it originated among a community of former slaves. The Ten Commandments constituted a manifesto against the regime that they had recently escaped, and a rebellion against that regime was at the heart of their God’s identity, as attested to in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When the ancient Israelites swore to worship only one God, they understood this to mean, in part, that they owed no fealty to the pharaoh or any other emperor.

It is therefore instructive to read the fourth commandment in light of the pharaoh’s labor practices described earlier in the book of Exodus. He is depicted as a manager never satisfied with his slaves. . . . The pharaoh orders that the slaves no longer be given straw with which to make bricks; they must now gather their own straw, while the daily quota for bricks would remain the same. When many fail to meet their quota, the pharaoh has them beaten and calls them lazy.

The fourth commandment presents a God who, rather than demanding ever more work, insists on rest. The weekly Sabbath placed a hard limit on how much work could be done and suggested that this was perfectly all right; enough work was done in the other six days. And whereas the pharaoh relaxed while his people toiled, the Lord insisted that the people rest as He rested: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.””

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