Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. Deut. 5:15
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth once wrote that a person is free only when they can determine and limit their activity. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, An Altar in the World, calls this the “practice of saying no.” God calls it Sabbath.
For observant Jews, a proper Sabbath service begins on Friday evening the moment three stars can be counted in the darkening sky. It then calls for the lighting of two candles—one for each of the Sabbath commandments in which God’s people are called to be more like God. They represent a candle of rest and a candle of freedom.
The first Sabbath candle reminds us that, since we are made in God’s image, we too are called to rest as God does, and that we are to consider this form of rest as something holy. As Moses commanded the Israelites,
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Deut. 5:12-14)
For six days we are commanded to work, but on the seventh day we are called to return to who we are, independent of our work. The Sabbath is a day that calls us not to do more, but to be more. As Brown Taylor puts it, “No longer do we tear the world apart to make our fire. On this day heat and warmth and light must come from within ourselves.” Speaking of her own Sabbath experience she writes,
I have made a practice of saying no for one whole day a week: no to work, to commerce, to the Internet, to the car, to the voice in my head that is forever whispering “More.” One day each week, more God is the only thing on my list.
Of course everything around us, as well as much within us, resists, to our own detriment, the wisdom of this command, which brings us to the second Sabbath candle. This candle is lit to remind us that we are no longer slaves to the systems of life. The second candle stands for the second formulation of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5. There the context of the commandment shifts from the creation of the world to the exodus from Egypt.
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
We, as well, can often feel like slaves of an unrelenting system which recognizes us only in terms of our productivity. We too risk buying into this identity as we lose sight of who we are apart from the work we do. And we too sense our spirits often groaning to God for deliverance from the false masters, many of our own making, that enslave our lives. Brown Taylor writes of this cry of the soul in describing the plight of the Israelite slaves, and of their emancipation by God.
God’s people cried out to God and God heard them, sending Moses to free them from bondage in a land that was not home. Resting every seventh day, God’s people remember their divine liberation. That is what the second Sabbath candle announces: that, made in God’s image, you too are made to be free from the excessive demands of this world.
The second candle represents the liberty that Karl Barth envisioned—of the freedom to determine and limit our activities. Slaves are those who have lost such freedom in their lives. Speaking of the long-term fruit of establishing limits to our activity, Brown Taylor adds,
Practicing it over and over again they become accomplished at saying no, which is how they gradually become able to resist the culture’s killing rhythms of drivenness and depletion, compulsion and collapse. Worshiping a different kind of God, they are shaped in that God’s image, stopping every seven days to celebrate their divine creation and liberation.
As Jesus taught us, we cannot serve two masters. Sabbath-keeping is what helps us choose, in the long term, which master we will serve and therefore which identity we will claim for ourselves. One way or another, our image will reflect the character of the master we choose.