The Torah tells us to keep Shabbat, with severe consequences for those who don’t. Among other sources, this midrash addresses what generally it means to keep Shabbat, but also opens up the possibility that Shabbat observance might be shaped by human input as well.
Torah: Exodus 31:14
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy to you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.
Midrash: Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Shabbata Ch. 1 (5 of 13)
“You shall keep Shabbat…” (Exodus 31:14). This is what R. Shimon ben Menasya would say: Shabbat is handed over to you and you are not handed over to Shabbat.
“…for it is holy to you” (Exodus 31:14). This tells that the Sabbath adds holiness to Israel. “Why is the shop of so-and-so closed?” “Because he keeps Shabbat.” “Why is so-and-so not working?” “Because he keeps Shabbat.” He testifies about the One who spoke and brought the world into being, that One who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. And thus is it written (Isaiah 43:12) “And you are My witnesses, says Adonai, that I am God.”
Three highly important concepts emerge in these midrashic comments. First, the assertion that Shabbat observance is in some way in our hands, meaning we are not to be held captive one day a week by a ritual we have no control over. Naturally Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya does not intend the level of freedom we find today in our relation to Shabbat observance. Nevertheless, the principle allows us to have a conversation about how we can responsibly and meaningfully observe Shabbat, as it is within our power to do so, as indicated by the words “to you”.
Second, Shabbat enhances the experience of holiness. Shabbat is the means by which we practice sacred separation from our work which consumes the rest of our days. The first example in the second paragraph notes that the location of work is closed – one level of separation. The second example is not working, a much harder separation today when our professional lives bleed so much into our private lives it seems more of a blood transfusion at times. Reading from our century, the midrash suggests we leave our offices and put our phones down on Shabbat. More generally, we experience Shabbat holiness by ceasing to engage with work externally and internally.
Third, Shabbat observance – the very obvious retreat from economic life – positions those who keep Shabbat as witnesses to God. God engaged in the work of creation for six days, and then rested on the seventh, making it holy. We imitate God by resting on Shabbat, and in so doing make the possibility of some value beyond economic life real in the world. Testifying to God here means visibly resisting the totalizing momentum of the life of work.
Why the citation from Isaiah? In Isaiah 43:14-15, God is twice referred to as Holy One, first as Holy One of Israel and then as “your Holy One”. This association of God as specifically the Holy One, and keeping Shabbat as a way to testify to the Holy One, thus makes sense in how keeping Shabbat confers holiness.
From this midrash, we have an assertion of human agency, a promise of increased holiness, and a role of witnessing. Human agency validates a witness – coercion might reveal power but not holiness. Holiness requires relationship, with commitments and obligations and a tender dance of offering and needing. Shabbat serves as the weekly reminder and invitation to look at the world through eyes that need nothing but to see what is holy, what is dignified, what is irreducibly worthy of love.