During the first two millennia after creation, humans learned how to sustain themselves; to find food, clothing, and shelter; and to organize a society that could cope successfully with the challenges of their surroundings. Yet apart from a select few who clung to monotheistic faith and morality, the entire world operated based on need and brute strength, without any idealistic goals. This situation continued until the Patriarchs Avraham, Yitzĥak, and Yaakov appeared on the scene, called God’s name, and dedicated their lives to improving the world through truth and kindness. They rejected paganism, which sanctified forces of nature and denied morality. Based on their intuitions, the Patriarchs kept mitzvot and observed Shabbat (Bereishit Rabba 79:7). Nevertheless, because they still had not received the Torah, they could not sustain their ideals within the world. On the contrary, the very wickedness they fought rose up against them; Egypt, then the most powerful of all nations, subjugated and enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to do backbreaking labor in order to sustain the Egyptian economy and provide the Egyptians with all their wants and needs. This showed the Israelites how wicked human nature could be and how badly the world needs the faith heralded by their ancestors.
The Israelites had a tradition, recorded on scrolls, that God would redeem them from Egypt. Each Shabbat they would enjoy reading these scrolls (see Shemot Rabba 5:18). This belief preserved their identity, and they steadily increased in number until they became a nation. Then the God of their ancestors revealed Himself to them, took them out of Egypt, redeemed them, and gave them the Torah and Shabbat.
The Israelites were not redeemed from merely Egyptian slavery when, after the Exodus, they accepted the Torah and Shabbat. They were also freed from their enslavement to nature and the struggle for survival. They were freed from the view that man’s sole purpose is to accumulate as much money and wealth as possible, even if it means controlling and enslaving others to that end.
Jews observe Shabbat and thus always remember that God created and sustains the world. Man’s purpose is to cleave to God and His attributes and to free himself from the bonds of slavery to the evil inclination and the struggle for survival. Even if due to the exigencies of circumstances and lack of choice one must work hard to support himself – even if one has been sold into slavery – he still rests on Shabbat. By doing so, he demonstrates that he is not entirely enslaved; his spirit remains free and connected to its divine roots:
Observe Shabbat day and keep 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 Shabbat of the Lord your God; you shall not do any melakha – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of you cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and 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 day of Shabbat. (Devarim 5:12-15)
God intentionally created the world incomplete so that people would have the opportunity to participate in repairing and improving it. It is impossible to fix the world without recognizing that its source is God and man’s destiny is to walk in His ways, as explained in the Torah. This is the purpose of the Jewish people – to reveal the word of God in the world: “I created this nation for My sake; they will tell My praise” (Yeshayahu 43:21). Therefore, the Sages stated that the heavens and earth were created in the merit of the Jews (Vayikra Rabba 36:4). Through Shabbat, a blessed and sacred time, the Jewish people can fulfill their destiny. This is why the Torah was given on Shabbat (Shabbat 86b) and why Shabbat is a time especially conducive to Torah study.