As a young rabbinical student, I was full of zeal for unearthing obscure Jewish texts and bringing them to bear on modern issues. No more would we invoke the same tired old Torah; instead, I would wow people with treasures from the depths of Devarim Rabbah or the bowels of Bava Batra.
With some more experience under my belt, I’ve come to realize that, while there’s something nice about a new text, there is even greater pleasure in discovering something new about a familiar piece. It confirms the value of “turning it and turning it again” and reaffirms that the Jewish words we say most frequently are meaningful beyond their rote recitation.
With that in mind as T’ruah’s sixth annual Human Rights Shabbat approaches, I took a fresh look at one of the most well-known Shabbat texts, Veshameru, to see what I could glean about the intersection of Shabbat and human rights.
In the first line, the word “brit” (covenant) jumped out at me. What makes Shabbat part of a brit (and not just a contract) is the element of holiness. A covenant lifts up the human partner, and helps us to get in touch with the divine spark within each of us. In human rights language, we would say this is part of the innate dignity of the human being.
But isn’t Shabbat a uniquely Jewish celebration? Well, yes, but in the second line of Veshameru—as in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments—the origin of Shabbat is identified as creation. This calls upon the universal aspect of God, in whose image we are created in a way that cuts across lines of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, politics, and all else that divides us. True, in the Deuteronomic retelling, the rationale for Shabbat shifts to the Exodus, which represents the particularist pole of Judaism. We live in the creative tension between the particularist and the universalist, but when it comes to respecting and upholding the dignity of humankind, we err unambiguously on the universalist side.
Which brings us, finally, to the last words of Veshameru, “shabbat vayinafash” (God rested and was ensouled). The connection between these two words marks the difference between man and machine. It is not just that a person needs a break while a machine can run indefinitely—people deserve a break and a place to rest because it is fundamental to who we are as soul-beings. The worker deserves time off. The persecuted deserve respite from antagonism. The prisoner deserves fair treatment so she can let her guard down. The homeless deserve a place to sleep. The refugee deserves a place to be safe. The indigenous peoples deserve a chance to rest on their own soil and, if they choose, under their own autonomy. The religious minority deserves a break from the need to justify and explain. Rest gives us the expansiveness, the space, to truly be the human beings we were meant to be.
This year, for Human Rights Shabbat, T’ruah commissioned seven new prayers and kavanot to enhance synagogue services and updated other educational materials. There is much that is creative and beautiful among the offerings, shedding holy light on human rights abuses and human rights successes. But perhaps the best prayer we can offer for human rights is simply the words we already know: ”Veshameru veney yisra’el et hashabbat la’asot et hashabbat ledorotam berit olam.” Let Israel’s descendants keep Shabbat, making Shabbat throughout all their generations, as an eternal bond.
Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Education at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He holds rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College and an AB from Brown University.