The weekly Torah reading, Ki Tisa, gives an overview of part of the period beginning with the Exodus and continues to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the conclusion of the Torah. This story is spread over 40 years, but the most meaningful section takes place in the 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people stood at Sinai to receive the Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about Moses’s descent from the mountain, which he had ascended after the revelation at Sinai, as is described at the end of Parshat Mishpatim: God said to Moses, “Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets….
And Moses was upon the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus 24:12-18) Forty days later – “When [God] finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the Two Tablets of the Testimony…” There was an important goal in Moses’s ascent to Mount Sinai: receiving the Two Tablets of the Covenant (referred to by the Torah as “Tablets of the Testimony”), these same tablets whose shape is familiar to us from the synagogue, and upon which was written the Ten Commandments. In those 40 days, Moses learned the entire Torah, comprised of the Written and the Oral Torah. However, between Moses’s ascent to Mount Sinai and his descent, we read about the construction of the Tabernacle. This constitutes the Torah portions known as Truma, Tetzaveh, and the first part of Ki Tisa.
The majority of these Torah readings deal with the laws of the building of the Tabernacle – the temporary sanctuary in the desert – and its operation. This information is essential for Moses, who is about to descend the mountain with the Two Tablets in hand, and their appointed place is the Tabernacle. It is clear that Moses must learn the laws surrounding the Tabernacle so that he can know how to treat the tablets to be placed within it.
But there is another subject mentioned in our Torah reading, one that Moses had to learn at Sinai as well, dealing with the commandment to observe the Sabbath.
“God said to Moses: ‘However, you must keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for all your generations…. Six days you shall work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to God… It is an everlasting sign between Me and the Children of Israel …’” (Exodus 31: 12-17) The Sabbath is a very precious commandment, mentioned a number of times in the Torah. Why does the Torah emphasize that Moses received the commandment to observe the Sabbath during the period when he was on Mount Sinai more than other Torah commandments? Why does this precept appear among the Ten Commandments? To understand this, we must understand an important principle in Torah study. When a subject is repeated in the Torah, no mention is ever superfluous.
Neither is this done only for emphasis or as a reminder. The significance of repetition of the subject is that it has a number of aspects and meanings, and each time a different meaning is being stressed.
We do not have to search far to find examples. The commandment to observe the Sabbath provides an excellent example of this principle. The Torah gives a number of reasons for its observance: The Sabbath testifies to the belief in the Creator, it serves as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, it is a day of rest for man after working six days of the week, the Sabbath as an equalizing factor in all levels of society, and in this week’s Torah portion another aspect of the Sabbath is expressed – it is a gift. The Sabbath is a unique gift presented by God to the Jewish people.
Our rabbis said: “God said to Moses: I have a precious gift in my treasury and it is called Shabbat. I want to present it to Israel – go and tell them! (Tractate Shabbat 10, Babylonian Talmud) One who examines the verses about the Sabbath in our Torah portion notices a personal note woven among them: “An everlasting sign between Me and the Children of Israel.” Here God grants a personal gift to the nation, a gift called Shabbat. This precious day is not just an ordinary day of rest, but rather a day of “”loving rest” – rest given us by God with love.
Moses did not only go up the mountain to bring down the Two Tablets of the Covenant. He ascended Mount Sinai to bring down the unique gift that God gave to the Jewish people: the Sabbath. In addition to the Two Tablets of the Covenant that he was carrying to place in the Tabernacle, he carried in his heart this unique gift in order to bestow it upon each and every Jew.
If we internalize this great privilege that was given to us and keep the Sabbath, we reach out our hands and accept the greatest present given to us by God in His love.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.