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Parashat Shelah: Shabbat – Our Collective Obligation

The Torah in Parashat Shelah tells the story of the Mekoshesh Esim – a man who publicly desecrated Shabbat while Beneh Yisrael were in the wilderness. The people who found him committing the act of Shabbat desecration brought him to Moshe, and G-d commanded that the man should be punished.

Rashi, commenting on this episode (15:32, writes, "Bi’gnutan Shel Yisrael Diber Ha’katub" – "The verse speaks in criticism of Yisrael." This story was told as criticism of Beneh Yisrael, noting that they failed to observe Shabbat.

The question arises, why is the entire nation criticized for one man’s Shabbat desecration? We might have thought that to the contrary, the "Mekosheh Esim" was the exception that proved the rule – the fact that he was found violating Shabbat, and was punished, shows that the rest of the nation properly observed Shabbat. Why, then, is this story seen as an indictment of all Beneh Yisrael?

Rav Yosef Salant (Jerusalem, 1885-1981), in his Be’er Yosef, explains that there are two aspects to Shabbat observance – an individual obligation to observe Shabbat, and a collective obligation to ensure that Shabbat is properly respected. These two obligations are expressed by the two commands of "Zachor Et Yom Ha’Shabbat" ("Remember the day of Shabbat" – Shemot 20:7), and "Shamor Et Yom Ha’Shabbat" ("Guard the day of Shabbat" – Debarim 5:11). The command of "Zachor" refers to our individual obligation to observe Shabbat, whereas the command of "Shamor," which requires us to "guard" Shabbat, refers to our collective obligation to ensure that Shabbat is observed.

Rav Salant cites the comment of the Chizkuni (Hizkiya Ben Manoah, France, late 13th century) that Moshe had appointed people to "patrol" the camp on Shabbat and ensure that Shabbat was not violated, and this is how the "Mekoshesh Esim" was found. However, Rav Salant writes, it appears that there were not enough patrols, because although the "Mekoshesh Esim" was discovered, the patrols did not see him in time to prevent him from violating Shabbat. Apparently, not enough people volunteered for this job – to ensure the observance of Shabbat. And for this reason, Rav Salant explains, Rashi writes that this story is an indictment of Beneh Yisrael for failing to observe Shabbat. Although all but one member of the nation properly fulfilled the individual obligation of Shabbat observance, the nation as a whole failed in regard to its collective obligation.

We must be mindful of both our personal obligation towards Shabbat, and also our collective responsibility. Although we obviously cannot enforce Shabbat observance today the way this was done in ancient times, we need to do what we can to contribute to the collective observance of Shabbat, to each do our share to create a special, joyous, sacred environment which can inspire and encourage our fellow Jews to observe Shabbat and reap the incalculable benefits of this sacred day.

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