There is much that is heart-wrenching in Parshat Ki Tisa. To quote Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, one moves from “igra rama l’bira amikta – from the high roof to the deep pit” (Hagiga 5b) and back; one moment Moshe stands on Har Sinai communing with God, about to receive the tablets of the covenant, and in the very next moment, he is forced to descend the mountain to confront those who have taken up worship of the golden calf. However, immediately before the tragic intersection of these two events unfolds, the Torah presents us with an antidote which might have obviated the terrible religious malaise brought on by the people’s sin. Shabbat!
The Torah makes explicit the purpose of Shabbat: “Yet My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations to know that I am the Lord who makes you holy. And you shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you.” (Exodus 31:13-14) The message I take from these verses is that the observance of Shabbat is not about you and me, but it is all about you and me. Shabbat is the seal that represents the relationship between God and His people. It is transformative for all involved, God, the person and for the framing of time. (See Heschel’s The Sabbath)
The Sages from Mishnaic times spelled out how this these ideas might work practically: “‘For it is holy to you’ (Exodus 31:14) – this tells [us] that Shabbat adds holiness to Israel. What is with so and so that his store is closed? It is because he observes Shabbat. What is with so and so that he refrains from work? It is because he observes Shabbat. And not just that but everyone who observes Shabbat bears witness to the One who spoke and the world came into existence, that He created His world in six days and rested on the seventh day, and so it says: ‘You are My witnesses, said the Lord, and I am God’ (Isaiah 43:12)” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Ki Tisa 1, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 341)
Implicit in this midrash is the idea that who we are is shaped by what we do and do not do. We shape our inner selves, our environment, and our relationships. We express our values through our deeds. And so, Shabbat manifests itself in behaviors which set a Jew apart, make him or her different, by setting one day aside as a sign between them and God.
The observance of Shabbat bears testimony to the Jewish belief in God and through its observance binds the Jew to God. This idea is well-expressed in this late midrash, likely inspired by what we saw in the Mechilta: “One can infer that God, Shabbat and Israel are all three, alike in holiness. Of the holiness of the Holy One, what does Scripture say? ‘But You are the Holy One, enthroned the Praise of Israel.’ (Psalms 22:4) Of the holiness of Shabbat, what does Scripture say? ‘You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy to you.’ Of the holiness of Israel, what does Scripture say? ‘’Israel is holy to God.’ (Jeremiah 2:3)” (Tanna debe Eliyahu 26, Ish Shalom ed. p. 133)
In other words, sometimes being different, makes a difference.