Thursday, 25 Jan 2018

Written by Dr Annette Boeckler


This shabbat is one of the few that is not called after the name of its Parashah. We read Parashat Beshallach, but it is “Shabbat Shira“, named after the first communal religious service of the children of Israel as a people. This gives the song in Exod 15 a special importance, also highlighted by the fact that we listen to it standing -as if praying – and that in the Ashkenazic tradition each verse containing God’s name is chanted not with the usual trop but with a special Melody, the same tune that is also used to chant the end of each creation day on Simchat Torah. The creation of the world and the creation of Israel are thus musically linked. Every morning we remind ourselves of this first communal praise after saying Shema Yisrael we quote Exod 15:11 and 18: Mi kamokha ba-elim Adonai Adonai yimlokh le’olam va’ed : Who can be compared to you, God? God rules for ever and ever. Only imagining us as being free can we approach God in the Amidah, standing, as during the song at the sea.

But Parashat Beshallach contains another hugely important aspect of even greater importance: The commandment of Shabbat (Exod 16:26). In the story of the creation of the world we were only informed that God rested on the seventh day (Vaychulu, Gen 2:1-3). – Whatever that means, God doing nothing. Does he stop caring for the world? Smart people may have guessed that when humans are created in God’s image and God rests on the 7th day, humans surely imitate God with their work-rest cycle. But up to Exod 16 nothing was said about this and not everything that God did so far would be good to imitate (for example sending plagues to others). Now here, after the crossing of the sea and in the first moments in the desert, the people of Israel as a people are commanded to keep shabbat, too, to take part in God’s rest. In our parashah it is remarkable how Shabbat is commanded – not as something that Moses tells the people. (Rashi said, he had completely forgotten to do so.) Shabbat is a discovery. The people daily collected their food – the manna, bread that miraculously is coming out of the earth – and discovered on the sixth day, that everybody surprisingly by accident had gathered a double portion. So they went to Moses to inquire. And Moses tells them God’s commandment to keep Shabbat, that they would need this double bread to be able to keep shabbat the next day. Thus shabbat is linked with the exodus – because of the fact, that it was commanded just shortly after but also that we first learned about it by questions. Why is this different? And also: shabbat is a sign of greatfulness that we were granted life the past 6 days and are able to make shabbat – or in the image of the torah: that we got the double portion that enables us to celebrate shabbat.

But the story is also closely linked to the beginning of the torah. In Vaychulu, the verses at the end of the creation story where we mention that God rested, we also say: וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אתוֹ    Vayevarech elohim et yom hashvi’i vayekadesh oto “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” Have you ever wondered how he “blessed” and “sanctified” in detail? Well … Rashi summarizes the Jewish tradition: “he blessed it with manna, for all days of the week there would descend to them one omer a head, but on the sixth, double bread (לחם משנה  lechem mishne) would descend. And he sanctified it with manna, that it should not descend at all on Shabbat.” (Rashi on Gen 2:3). Some read “lechem meshune” “changed bread”. “That day it changed for the better in its aroma and its taste” (Rashi on Exod 16:22). In memory of this discovery of the ancient Israelites we, too, use two loafs of bread (lechem mishne) of better quality (lechem meshune) each shabbat to start our meal or as in the progressive tradition, to add to the wine of kiddush.

God blesses the shabbat by caring for us in advance, providing us with the means that we ourselves can keep us alive. Keeping shabbat on our side is our expression of gratefulness that God has granted us life and so many things. After we have worked and have been satisfied, we rest and thank God.

As with creation, where we ended up being God’s partners in caring for the world, so with shabbat. It will never be a special day, if we don’t set it apart and make it different. To be able to do so, we may need to think about shabbat already on Friday or the days before. The whole week is a preparation for shabbat. Traditionally some say, that our whole life is the preparation for a future eternal shabbat (cf. the explanations on Psalm 92).

As we say in Kiddush: Shabbat is a זיכרון למעשה בארשית zikharon lema’ase bereshit “a reminder of Creation” – that it is not we human beings that are the source of everything but God. That God is the master and therefore the ultimate ruler and sovereign of all we experience. And Shabbat is a זכר ליציאת מצרים zekher litziat mitzrayim “a recalling of the exodus out of distress and oppression.  The commandment to keep shabbat was given after the crossing of the sea. It reminds us that we should not give up when we can’t see a way forward and fear enemies behind us, when we are in a desert without water and food. Let’s keep our eyes and minds open to discover, like the ancient Israelites in our parashah, the miracle of Shabbat: a caring God.


Dr Annette Boeckler LBC first year rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.