“Dad! Will you have work next week? Will we have chicken for Shabbat next week, too?” These words were often spoken by Jews who immigrated to the United States about 100 years ago, many of whom worked in the textile industry sweatshops. As a result of the large number of immigrants and the small number of jobs, each Jew who observed Shabbat feared that after he left work on Fridays someone else would come and take his place. Because of the extreme difficulties in supporting one’s family and the complexity of life with non-Jews, many Jews stopped keeping Shabbat at various periods in history, which often resulted in them eventually drifting away from Jewish tradition.
Throughout history, not only did financial difficulties cause Jews to stop keeping Shabbat, but also decrees and persecution. For example, Antiochus Epiphanes’ anti-religious decrees included the prohibition on keeping Shabbat, following which the Maccabees rebelled, which brought about the return of the Jewish monarchy in the Land of Israel. Antiochus declared his anti-religious decrees in order to eradicate the Jewish religion. If he had just been interested in suppressing the Jews’ opposition he could have just increased taxes, gotten rid his strongest opponents, etc. From this we see that the victory of the Hashmonaim and the miracle of Chanukah was not just in the return of the Jewish monarchy to Israel or building the Beit Hamikdash, but also in returning the Jews’ ability to keep mitzvot, including Shabbat.
Today, the modern Jew also faces significant challenges. While most do not experience religious persecution or financial difficulties in keeping Shabbat, in my opinion the major challenge results from the difficulty in inserting content into this holy day, which can therefore result in Shabbat turning into a boring day of limitations and restrictions.
When we look at the parsha through the eyes of the midrash, we see a way to possibly deal with the challenges posed by Shabbat that arise in each generation.
Many midrashim say that the forefathers kept the Torah even before it was given to the Jewish people. Even if rational reasons make it difficult for us to accept these midrashim, they definitely teach us an educational message. In regards to Yosef, it says that he kept Shabbat, while noting a hint that points to this in our parsha – Parshat Miketz. When Yosef saw Binyamin come to Egypt with the rest of his brothers, he commands: “Bring the men to my home, and kills the animals and prepare the meat, for they shall dine with me in the afternoon” (Breishit 43:16). The Sages understood that the preparation described in this verse is the preparation on Friday for Shabbat meals:
“And when his brothers went to him the second time ‘And when Yosef saw Binyamin with them…’ (Breishit 43:16). However, kings are not accustomed to preparing food a day in advance!? Rabbi Yochanan said: It was Shabbat, as it says ‘and prepare’, which is only used in relation to Shabbat, as it says ‘And it was on Friday and they prepared’ (Shemot 16). G-d said to him: You kept Shabbat and I promise that one of your descendants will be chosen to offer up a sacrifice on Shabbat. On what basis? As it says: ‘On the seventh day the chieftain was of the sons of Efraim’ (Bamidbar 8)” (Tanchuma Naso, 28).
The “Ktav Sofer” (Drashot for Shabbat Chanukah) asks about this midrash why it is specifically one of Yosef’s descendants who merited to offer a sacrifice at the inauguration of the Mishkan on Shabbat? The others also kept Shabbat before the Torah was given to the Jewish people!?
The “Ktav Sofer” resolves that the forefathers all kept the Torah, but it was easy for them because they were not living among the other nations. However, for Yosef, who was a ruler in Egypt, it was more difficult to keep Shabbat and therefore he deserves a larger reward for doing it.
The “Ktav Sofer” also adds that Shabbat is not only intended for the body to rest as claimed by non-believers, but rather also for spiritual needs, as the verse says “And the Children of Israel shall observe Shabbat, to make Shabbat throughout the generations an everlasting covenant” (Shemot 31:16). The commandment was given to: the “Children of Israel” – the generation in the desert, which did not need physical rest and did not experience difficulties in observing Shabbat; as well as “throughout the generations” – the future generations who enter the Land of Israel or live outside Israel among non-Jews who celebrate their day of rest on a different day, and experience difficulties in keeping Shabbat. The reason for observing Shabbat is that “Shabbat will be a covenant throughout the generations” and is intended for sanctifying the human.
The modern day individual who deals with constant stimuli during the week from each and every electronic device around him/her, is not only faced with the difficulties experienced by previous generations in regards to observing Shabbat, rather also (and primarily) the difficulty of filling up Shabbat with positive content such that he/she will not feel boredom and emptiness. This can be corrected in many ways, for example: setting time for learning Torah, meaningful face-to-face time together with family and friends (not through an sms or facebook), focusing on davening as a spiritual meeting with G-d, etc. In order to create this, there is a need for preparation and planning, as Yosef did. “Did you prepare for Shabbat?” does not only need to refer to preparing food and covering the light switches, rather also planning what we will do on Shabbat.
The Sages said, “If the Jews kept two Shabbatot, they would be redeemed immediately”. The “Ktav Sofer” said that “two Shabbatot” should be understood as a hint of two aspects on Shabbat: the prohibition to do work / the various limitations, and Oneg Shabbat – the spiritual content that we insert into Shabbat. May we all merit to prepare for Shabbat both through completing all of the physical preparations, as well as gaining an understanding of how to maximize our enjoyment, happiness, and connection with G-d on Shabbat.