Shabbat Parshat Yitro - 5760
"And You Will Be for Me a Kingdom of
Priests and a Holy Nation
This Shabbat, in Parshat Yitro, the Master of the Universe will inform Moshe Rabbeinu of the intended destiny of the Jewish People; that is, to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
And, about six hundred fifty years later, the Prophet Yeshayahu will be given a similar, if infinitely sadder, message. That the Jewish People are such a stubborn People that they will have to be punished time after time, holding their population to a minimum, "for you are the smallest of the nations" (Devarim 7:7), but that minimum will contain an indestructible "seed of holiness." (Yeshayahu 6:13)
The hallmark of Parshat Yitro and one of the hallmarks of Judaism is that set of Divine Utterances, the "Aseret HaDibrot," known as the Ten Commandments. One might have expected, in light of the above paragraph, that the Commandments would contain multiple references to holiness. But in fact, the only one of the Ten Commandments that mentions the idea of holiness is the Fourth Commandment, the Commandment of Shabbat.
Another unique feature of the Shabbat Commandment is that it exists in the Torah in two versions: the version found in Parshat Yitro, and the version found in Parshat Vaetchanan in the Book of Devarim. The Yitro version begins, "Remember the Day of Shabbat to keep it holy" (Shemot 20:8). The Vaetchanan version begins, "Guard the Day of Shabbat to keep it holy" (Devarim 5:12).
The Sages say in Shavuot 20b that "Guard and Remember were included in one Divine Utterance," so that the Jewish People were able to comprehend both complementary aspects of the Shabbat at one time, something that the powers of speech and communication of the human being are incapable of.
The Yitro version deals with the holy day of Shabbat as a special time which commemorates the Creation of the Universe by G-d in "Six Days" and His "Rest" on the "Seventh Day." We celebrate this aspect of the Shabbat by reciting the Kiddush Friday night at the beginning of Shabbat, and again on Saturday at the second Shabbat meal, and by spending the day in prayer, public reading of the Torah, Torah study sessions, and other pleasurable activities with one's family and friends. Thus, certain activities, as opposed to others, especially those which contribute to peace of mind and serenity of spirit, qualify to be considered "holy."
The Vaetchanan version deals with Shabbat as a special time which commemorates the Exodus, when Hashem took the Jewish People out of the "House of Bondage" of Egypt. It requires us to re-experience our slavery in Egypt and our liberation from that degraded state, and by that act of memory internalize a deep sympathy for and empathy with all the "innocent victims" of the world. The method of celebration is by our relinquishing "control," by withdrawing from all purposeful creative interaction with the world, such as the planting of a seed, to engage in a complete physical withdrawal from one's workaday responsibilities, a "day of rest" extended to all the members of one's household, including even the animals. The introduction of a "day off" in each week was a profound statement that the human being is not a slave.
Both versions emphatically refute the scoffing comment of Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor, to Rabbi Akiva, "mah yom miyomayim?" "How can one day be different from another day?"
We are taught that the "Mohn," the miraculous "bread from Heaven," was used by Hashem to teach the lessons of Shabbat. "Berecho ve-Kidesho be-Mohn," "He blessed it (the Shabbat) and made it holy by means of the Mohn." "Blessing it" by allowing a double-portion to fall on Friday, the Eve of Shabbat, and not allowing the extra portion to spoil, as it did on all other days of the week; "Making it holy" by not allowing the Mohn to fall on the Day of Shabbat, giving decisive proof that not all times are alike. For Time, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, itself a creation of the holy G-d, is susceptible as well to the quality of holiness.
One of the fundamental aspects of holiness is separation and withdrawal. In the case of Hashem, the Holy One, holiness expresses itself mainly in the total withdrawal from abuse of power. All year we praise Hashem in the Shemoneh Esray Prayer as the "E-l HaKadosh," the Holy Mighty One. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when we emphasize the Kingly aspect of Hashem and His aspect as Righteous Judge of all the world, we refer to Him as the "Melech HaKadosh," the Holy King, Who possesses infinite power, but practices infinite withdrawal from it.
Another aspect of the holiness of Hashem is "joy," which He wishes to share with His People. As we learn from the Book of Nechemiah (8:9-11), where we find the following description of the celebration of Rosh HaShanah at that critical time in our history:
"And Nechemiah, who was the Tirshatha (?) and Ezra, the Priest and Scribe, and the Leviim, who were the Teachers, said to all the People, 'Today is holy unto Hashem your G-d, do not be mournful and do not weep,' because all the People were weeping when they heard the words of the Torah. And he said to them, 'Go and eat delicacies and drink fine drink, and exchange gifts with each other, for the day is holy unto our Master, and do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is your strength.' "
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU