Avraham has an interrupted journey when he follows G-d’s command. He is instructed to travel to Eretz Yisrael with the promise that he would receive every form of blessing, yet shortly after his arrival there famine strikes, causing him to leave for Egypt. Commentators have different views about Avraham’s reaction. Rashi (12:10) – citing the words of the Sages (Midrash Tanchuma 5) – sees the sequence of events as a test, and praises Avraham for maintaining his faith despite the need to radically change his plans. Ramban (12:11) sees it as a failure of Avraham, suggesting that he should have placed his faith in G-d, Who would certainly allow him to stay in Eretz Yisrael and redeem him from the dangers of famine.
A third approach is also possible. It would be necessary for Avraham to travel to Egypt and to suffer the indignities of that experience, but to survive it he would need to be forearmed with a promise, with a strong sense of hope for the future. G-d promised him the world, sent him to Israel and secured him there, so that his connection to that land would serve as an anchor and a hope that would maintain him during the difficult period he would experience in Egypt.
This idea was clearly at play when Avraham’s descendants would follow his path to Egypt.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 1:28) tells of Moshe’s earliest effort on behalf of the Jewish people. When Moshe first observed the slavery of the Jews, he was living in Pharaoh’s house as his adopted grandson, the consummate palace insider. In that capacity, Moshe suggested to Pharaoh that it was in his best interest to give the Jews a weekly day off, so they would not die of exhaustion. Pharaoh accepted Moshe’s idea, and instructed him to implement it, whereupon Moshe established the Shabbos as a day of rest for the Jews.
One of the earliest commentators on the Siddur, Rabbi David Abudraham, sees this accomplishment of Moshe as so significant that we reference it in our weekly Shabbos morning Amidah, where we speak of Moshe’s particular joy in the gift of Shabbos.
This day off remained in place until Moshe returned to Egypt from his sojourn in Midian. Moshe then approached Pharaoh again, but this time not as an insider, as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, but as the opposition, as the leader of the Jewish people. In response to Moshe’s request that the Jewish people be permitted to go serve their G-d, Pharaoh responded furiously, seeing the request as stemming from weakness. He insisted that they be made to work harder than before, lest they continue to harbor their false hopes.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 5:18) explains that Pharaoh realized then that Shabbos was not simply the benign day off originally proposed by Moshe, without which the Jews would physically collapse. It was a day of inspiration. In the words of the Midrash: “The Jews possessed scrolls that promised G-d’s redemption, and they read them with enjoyment every Shabbos.” Pharaoh thus took from them this day that provided their hope for the future.
Other Midrashic sources clarify that these inspiring scrolls contained the Bris Bein Habesarim, the covenant made with Avraham in our Parsha (15:8-21), that anticipates the four hundred years of exile and bondage that would be followed by a dramatic redemption (see TorahSheleimah Ch. 5 Note 47).
Apparently, a critical survival tool for the Jew is not the physical respite provided by a day of rest, but the opportunity that such a day offers to remind ourselves of, and fortify ourselves with, the promise of redemption. Indeed, as soon as Pharaoh discontinued that day of inspiration, G-d told Moshe that he was now ready to demonstrate the strength of His hand in redeeming the Jews (Shemos 6:1). If we would not be given the chance to remind ourselves of the promise, we simply could not continue to survive the bondage. The process of redemption would need to begin immediately.
In 1982, Dr. Yaffa Eliach – who passed away on November 8, 2016 – published a modern classic, “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust”. In the introduction, she wrote:
“During the Holocaust, when European Jews were systematically destroyed and the cultural achievements of western civilization were fragmented, Hasidism continued to create its magnificent tales in ghettos, hiding places, and camps. Despite the unprecedented scope of the mechanized destruction of human lives, Hasidism did not lose its values, its belief in humanity….
These tales are not merely the personal stories of a particular Hasidic rabbi or of individual Hasidim… At a time when human beings were stripped naked of everything, even of their names, the only resource remaining to them was their inner spiritual strength. This was the very essence of their existence, and it is this that the tales record.”
Our community was privileged to have in its midst an exceptional man, Rabbi Yehuda Friedman. Rabbi Friedman was a survivor who had lost his wife and child in the Holocaust, and subsequently remarried and built a magnificent family. He was a warm and dignified person who uplifted all who came into his orbit. He told us of his own experience in the Holocaust, one of his own Hasidic tales, where he would lie on his bunk in Auschwitz on Friday nights, crowded on the wooden planks with many others, and he and a few friends would sing together in a whisper the Shabbos Zemiros. Those songs, those memories of the past that expressed the hope and promise of the future, enabled his survival.
Indeed, when we – in a far better time and place – celebrate Shabbos, we not only relish the day of rest, but we remind ourselves of our hope and promise for the future. The ultimate Shabbos song, Lecha Dodi, anticipates both the arrival of Shabbos and the rebuilding of the Temple. Our Shabbos Zemiros, the songs that accompany our Shabbos meals, are dominated by references to the ultimate redemption. Birkas HaMazon, the grace after meals, is to be preceded during the weekdays by the elegy “By the Rivers of Babylon” (Psalm 137), whereas on Shabbos we introduce it by singing the song of return, “Shir HaMaalos” (Psalm 126).
We are enriched by a Shabbos that is not simply a break, a day of rest, but a day of inspiration. Shabbos has the power to reignite our sense of hope and destiny by its songs, by our study of the “scrolls” of the Torah reading that teach and remind us of our past and our future, and by the stories that we share around our tables, stories that inspire and instruct and build our inner strength, bringing light to our eyes.