Yitro – It’s About Time
Remember the day of Sabbath to consecrate it… (Exodus 20:8-9) One of the reasons the Torah lists for the observance of Shabbat (not in this context but in the second rendition of the Ten Commandments) is to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. No one knew better than the Israelites in that generation the meaning of being controlled by others. They were not masters of their time while enslaved by Egypt; they and their time belonged to their Egyptian slave-owners. Upon being released from bondage they were suddenly on their own, with no person demanding their attention or service.
Going from a strict, rigid and structured framework to a free and boundless reality can be very traumatic. The limits imposed by living on a meager salary, for example, can be very good for a person’s discipline. Upon winning the lottery many a family’s life went to ruin because the sudden freedom acquired through new-found wealth was more than they could handle. Growing gradually wealthy, on the other hand, gives a person time to adjust slowly to a different lifestyle, and one won’t go wildly out of control in the process.
Abraham Lincoln recognized this nature of humanity and he therefore did not initially have plans for all slaves in the United States to go free instantly. He foresaw a process that would gradually lift slavery until it was entirely abolished, giving the individual emancipated slaves the opportunity to build their lives productively, without leaving a sudden vacuum for hundreds of thousands. Indeed, the Civil War initially was not about slavery but about the right for individual States to secede. Only later, in the second half of the war, slavery became the all or nothing issue. Lincoln had no choice but to accept that all slaves would immediately go free even though he was aware of the implications. Many generations have since been affected by this sudden displacement, and to this day the descendants of slaves are still struggling to gain equal footing in society and feel comfortable mixing and engaging with everyone else. Individual migrants who arrive from different countries, seeking opportunity, almost immediately fall into place and are absorbed into society, but the sudden freedom imposed on masses forced the creation of ghettos and slum neighborhoods.
Shabbat was given to the Israelite nation, in part to commemorate this Exodus, this freedom, this release from slavery. If a particular day is allocated for rest it forms a framework wherein the other days of the week are used productively for work. It shielded the nation from the debilitating effects of unaccustomed liberty, which they might not handle well. Instead of being simply driven away from everything they knew, the Israelites were given the opportunity for great