After Hashem splits the Red Sea, the Jewish People are tested several times. After surviving the initial challenge of Mara and passing through the oasis of Eilim, they reach the Desert of Sin, and once again are tested with hunger and thirst. They complain to Moshe, asking why Hashem took them out of Egypt and showed them all of the divine signs, only to have them die of a “רעב” in the wilderness.
Hashem responds by promising to provide divine food (literally, “הנני ממטיר לכם לחם מן השמים- I will rain bread for you from the sky” (שמות טז:ד)) to satiate them and sustain them in the desert. Imagine that: being able to travel for days through the treacherous Sinai Desert (thanks to Jimmy Carter’s concerted efforts to force Menachem Begin into making peace with Egypt in 1979, this is something that we can unfortunately only imagine), without having to worry about food; having a divine picnic every day without having to carry the basket.
This amazing deal came with only one condition, such a small and easy caveat to the provision of daily rations in an inhospitable environment; that the heavenly food would not fall on Shabbat, and that Am Yisrael would need to gather their food from the double supply that would appear on Friday morning instead, and save it for the seventh day. The only reason given for this “כִּי-שַׁבָּת הַיּוֹם לה’, הַיּוֹם לֹא תִמְצָאֻהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה- Shabbat is the day for Hashem: on that day, you won’t be in the field” (ט”ז:כ”ה)
So, as you could have guessed:
וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, יָצְאוּ מִן-הָעָם לִלְקֹט; וְלֹא, מָצָאוּ.
And it was on the seventh day, some of the nation went out to gather (food), but they didn’t find any (טז:כ”ז)
Hashem immediately speaks to Moshe, and asks why the Jewish people have refused to fulfill His Torah and follow His mitzvot. Shabbat, He says, is a holy day of rest, a day for:
שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו, אַל-יֵצֵא אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹ–בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי
A man to stay in his place (lit. stay seated), for no man should leave his home on the seventh day (ט”ז:כ”ח)
Considering that this is the Jewish People’s first encounter with Shabbat, this seems to be a very unusual way to introduce keeping Hashem’s holy day. We know of the melachot, of the mitzvot of שמור and זכור, and the importance of Oneg Shabbat. Until this point, all the Jews had been told was not to go to the field, because Shabbat is Hashem’s day. Now, Hashem adds that on the seventh say, they have an obligation to, literally, sit still all day and not leave their homes. Very few of us in our times, except perhaps for some poor Chabad shliach doing kiruv on eskimos and penguins in Antarctica, keep Shabbat this way. What could be the significance in exposing the Jewish People to Shabbat this way, by introducing the weekly observance like this?
My very learned chavruta, Eyal Ben Haim, once gave me an insightful answer to this question. He said that this passuk, of “שבו איש תחתיו” very much parallels a passuk in last week’s sedra:
לֹא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו–שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וּלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר, בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם.
No man could see his brother, and no man got up from where he was sitting for three days… but for the Jewish People there was light in their homes. (י’:כ”ג)
Eyal explained that it is no coincidence that the unusual wording which Hashem used to reinforce the importance of resting in Shabbat is the exact way that the Torah explains the effect of Makkat Choshech on the Egyptian People. When Hashem changed nature to bring the absolute darkness of Choshech into the world, He also created a conversely absolute light, the light of Shabbat. As a result of the freedom of movement that our ancestors had while most Egyptians were trapped in their homes by the tangible darkness, we voluntarily remain in our homes every week, relax, and praise Hashem for all of the good that He has done for us, especially taking us out of Egypt. As we say every Friday night in kiddush, “תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם- the first of the days we were commanded to call holy, a reminder of the Exodus.”
This was an especially pertinent message to impress on the Jewish People in Midbar Sin. One of the first mitzvot that they were given after leaving Egypt was the commandment of sitting still on Shabbat. Unfortunately, when some of them, still in the slave mentality and not quite ready to listen to mitzvot, ignored this and went out to the fields anyway, they needed a reminder of the importance of keeping all of the mitzvot, and especially Shabbat. By bringing them back to the miraculous days preceeding the Exodus, Hashem subtly reminded our ancestors of His might and His kindness, and of the darkness that He brought in the world on their behalf. This had such a strong impact that the Jews (with the exception of the מקושש עצים many years later) unanimously kept Shabbat afterwards, truly understanding the importance of guarding the light that G-d created to offset the darkness of מכת חושך, and, as the passuk says: “וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי- and the (entire) nation rested on the seventh day” (ט”ז:ל’). Having left Egypt and personally witnessed makat choshech, this message struck very close to home for the דור יוצא מצרים.
Now, thousands of years later, מכת חושך is little more than a biblical story to us. But, after winters of darkness and electrical outages for days on end (looking at you, Greater New York tri-state area), we can all appreciate, at least on the most basic level, how much of a blessing light is. We can understand just a little bit how liberating it must have been for Am Yisrael to walk around the darkened Egyptian cities, and have Hashem light their way. We must bring this appreciation to the light of Shabbat as well. Surrounded by a culture of people who go about the dross routine of day-to-day life seven days every week, Shabbat presents us with an opportunity to bring light to our lives; to stop our routine for twenty five hours, praise Hashem, and contemplate how He has brought light into our lives.
In a time when the enemies of our people are working to spread their darkness and call for the destruction of our people and our State, we must work extra-hard to remember the miracles that Hashem performed for us when He took us out of Egypt, especially makat choshech and the man. There is no better way to do this then to embrace the observance of Shabbat, remember יציאת מצרים and pray for our own Exodus as well. With Hashem’s help, may we all merit to properly appreciate the light of Shabbat and keep it holy, and, through a heightened observance, we will all merit a repetition of the biblical miracles, and our final redemption, very very soon.