sunset new york city skyline
Back to Stories & Articles

Toward Shabbat: Hukkat

On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, Union Major-General Gordon Granger read the words of General Order No. 3:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…”

Only 156 years ago tomorrow, on what is now officially a Federal holiday in the United States, the last slaves were set free in this country. Beginning in the mid 1800s and to this day, June 19th—known as Juneteenth—is a day when African Americans celebrate their independence and freedom and we all celebrate the end of slavery in our nation. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other precious Black lives focus our attention in a new way on this holiday, a time to celebrate the culture of African Americans and fight for Black lives.

This year, Juneteenth falls on Shabbat. I always think about Shabbat as our day of rest on which God commands us to rest because God rested. I have written in past issues of the Toward Shabbat about the gift of pausing, the power of connection, and the opportunity for imitatio Dei—imitating God through our Shabbat practice. Yet, these understandings of Shabbat make up one of two reasons given in the Torah as to why we are commanded to keep Shabbat. When we read the Ten Commandments in the book of Shemot (chapter 20), the reason given for keeping Shabbat is:

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy…For in six days God made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the sabbath day and sanctified it.

זָכ֛וֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ…כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת־יָמִים עָשָׂה ה׳ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־כל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל־כֵּן בֵּרַךְ ה׳ אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ

However, when we read the the Ten Commandments in the fifth chapter of Devarim there is another reason given:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and God your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי־עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ ׀ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיּצִאֲךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָה עַל־כֵּן צִוְּךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת

Here we are told that we keep Shabbat because we were once slaves in Egypt. Shabbat is our emancipation day, it is the day in which we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and that it is our job to ensure that no one is oppressed as we once were. We are forever enslaved as long as slavery continues to exist in our world.

Every Shabbat we declare these two reasons as we say kiddush on Friday night calling Shabbat both זִכָּרוֹן לְמַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית, a reminder of the work of Creation and זֵֽכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָֽיִם—a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. You may ask yourself: Is it the former or the latter; is Shabbat about creation or freedom? How can we understand these two reasons together?

In his essay titled the “Insecurity of Freedom,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,

“A major root of freedom lies in the belief that man, every man, is too good to be the slave of another man. However, the dynamic of our society, the cheapening and trivialization of existence, continues to corrode that belief.”

Heschel begs us to remember that the heart of freedom is in the counter-cultural understanding that life is a gift. The society around us, the racism and biases we are raised with, keep us from understanding that each and every one of us is created in the image of God. Creation and freedom are one and the same. Freedom is only possible when we see the Divine spark in every human being—when we understand that every breath is holy.

No holiday, whether it is celebrated as a Federal holiday once a year or weekly, will break the yoke of racism and slavery, but perhaps it can be a start. On this Shabbat Juneteenth, and every Shabbat moving forward, may we raise our kiddush cups not only to sanctify the day but also to sanctify all human life and complete emancipation; for slavery and its pervasive impact is far from done.