Monday, March 29, 2010

Pesach - פסח

Tonight, Jews around the world will read at the Seder the command: "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים." (In each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.)

The words above form the basis for the Seder night experience; all that we do is meant to remind us of the events of that dramatic period. But for all the props, texts and ceremonies, all our efforts are worthless unless we actively try to imagine ourselves as being part of the miraculous liberation from Egypt. Note that we are all *obligated* to see ourselves leaving Egypt. It's not just good practice; this is an outright command. While we can certainly appreciate that the events of the time were hugely important to the Jewish nation, what on earth is so crucial about our seeing ourselves as part of the generation that left Egypt?

This question is answered in part by the Sfat Emet, who notes that this phrase makes use of two different levels; one of the generation and one of the individual. The point is that there were two different aspects to the miracle of Pesach; one of a social scale and one on an individual scale. Whereas the social miracle was clearly evident on a physical level, the individual miracle was somewhat more discreet. Unfortunately for us, we seem to think that the command is for us to remember the physical exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but actually the command also exists on another, somewhat more neglected, level. It is often noted that the Hebrew word Mitzrayim (Egypt in English,) is related to the word Maytzar, which means constraints.

The Sfat Emet also tenders that every generation experiences its own version of the Redemption from Egypt. As each successive generation sinks to successively lower levels, we can claim with some justification that it is only by the mercy of God that we are permitted to continue our existence, even though we live our lives in opposition to the way we are instructed. With that belief under our belts, the Sfat Emet teaches us, we can then go on to relive the original and prototypical redemption as a private experience.

The two strands connect deeply. The constraints spoken about above were the spiritual constraints of the land of Egypt. In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we declare the land of Israel to be "Eretz Chemdah, Tovah ur'chava," a land that is delightful, good and wide." Now, it might seem reasonable to use the first two terms to describe Israel, but anyone who has looked at a map of Israel will tell you that it is anything but wide. The land of Israel is a narrow strip of land, even at it's widest section, and it's range from top to bottom is far more than it's range from side to side. The word Mitzrayim, Egypt, suffers from a similar poser; the root letters צ and ר make up the word Tzar, which means thin. Once again, anyone who recognises Egypt on a map will tell you that this it odds with Egypt's physical nature. What can this all mean?

I have learned that the way to reconcile these two problems is to understand that the width and the narrowness we learn of are not descriptions of the physical aspects of these two countries. Israel's "width" exists in it's spiritual richness. The narrowness of Egypt referred to it's limited connection to the spiritual. Returning to the point above, we may understand the command properly now; in each and every generation, one must see himself as not only being physically delivered from the oppression of the Egyptians, but also as having been spiritually redeemed by God. We are to imagine ourselves as having sunken to the lowest level possible and yet for Hashem to have come riding to the rescue and take us home to the land of Israel. I find this message very powerful; despite the fractures in the Jewish community (fractures that are often the most intractable when different parts of Jewry disagree on Israel and Judaism itself,) and despite the terrible sense of alienation and feeling of being different and alone in this world, we know that all will be alright in the end.

Wishing you a chag kasher v'sameach!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Parshat Tzav - פרשת צו

"אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה - A fire, continually, shall remain aflame on the Altar; you shall not extinguish it."
(ויקרא ו:ו)

This week's Parsha is also Shabbat HaGadol; the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. In my D'var Torah this week, I'd like to see how the Haftarah and the Parsha itself connect. In the verse above, we read of the Ner Tamid, the lamp in the Bet Hamikdash that was continually alight. The Yalkut Lekach Tov explains that Rav Yaakov Neiman writes in book, "Darchei Mussar", that while it is often said that back in days gone by Hashem would perform more open and obvious miracles, this is a problematic statement because miracles continue to occur every single day. The reason why we don't recognise and acknowledge the miraculous is because we have become accustomed to seeing things as "natural", when they need not be so at all.

The reason for this state of affairs can be found in Parshat Ki Tisa, where it says:  "וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי:  כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי. - He said, and you shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live." Because God is so awesome, we are never exposed to anything more than a what might be termed an "abstract" miracle; one that at least partially hides God's essence. As such, all miracles are partially covered up in the appearance of the "natural". In the Shmonah Esrei prayer, we read the words "על נסין שבכל יום עמנו ועל נפלאותך שבכל עת - For your miracles that are with us every day and for your wonders; of all times." But while we acknowledge these miracles, we don't genuinely see them. We only see nature.

But the truth is that the miracles we believe Hashem performs for us are never far from the surface. In the haftarah we read: "כי הנה היום בא בער כתנור והיו כל זדים וכל עשה רשעה קש ולהט אתם היום הבא אמר יהוה צבאות אשר לא יעזב להם שרש וענף - For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven; all the wanton ones and all the evildoers will be stubble and the coming days will set them ablaze says Hashem, Master of Legions, it will leave them not root or branch." A while later, the Haftarah continues: "וזרחה לכם יראי שמי שמש צדקה ומרפא בכנפיה ויצאתם ופשתם כעגלי מרבק - But for you that rever My Name, a sun of righteousness will shine forth, with healing on its wings; and you shall go forth and prosper like fattened calves."

Now, while the scene depicted above may be described as stereotypically "Biblical";  fire and brimstone for the sinners and a nice "carrot and stick"  for those who follow God, beyond the simple narrative, there's another aspect to what is written. The Yalkut Lekach Tov explains that the lesson being taught here is quite unconventional, saying that we learn from this passage that there is no such thing as heaven and hell in Judaism. But that leaves us with a question; what is the Jewish belief in afterlife, then? The answer is surprising; they are one and the same. What does this all mean?

The Lekach Tov explains how the two are reconciled. The "sun" that is mentioned here is blinding light, and it is essentially nothing other than truth. Heaven, for those who have spent their earthy lives effectively, performing Mitzvot, learning Torah and perfecting their character traits, is seeing themselves in the light of truth and realising that their lives were well lived. Hell, on the other hand, is when people who haven't utilised the gift of life to the maximum realise exactly what they have wasted. The truth is revealed to them, and all their lies and foolery are shown up for what they really are. The Lekach Tov makes a specfic example of newspapers and the like (why yes, I have worked as a journalist in the past!) decrying the practises of men who spend their days "pursuing justice" and "doing good deeds." (I can only be reminded of the fools marching and protesting to "Stop the War.") These people live their lives making believe that they are doing something important and fighting for a vital cause, but the real truth is that they are fighting a disingenuous and false fight. Once they are shown the truth, those who spend their energies on such stupidity will surely suffer from the knowledge that they wasted their time.

In this way, we can understand how the sun's light, the light of truth, acts to heal those who are deserving of Hashem's mercy, and simultaneously 'burns' all those who are not. Although this would at first seem a simple enough episode, we can understand now how the treatment meted out was no less miraculous than the miracle of the Ner Tamid, the light in the Bet Hamikdash that was permanenly aflame, which in turn was no more and no less miraculous than the myriad different acts of God that occur each and every day that we normally ascribe to 'nature' but are in actual fact directly sourced to God.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Please support the Zionist Federation

Having helped out at the Zionist Federation last year, I can say with utter sincerity that this is a cause that genuinely deserves your support. When you imagine the leading Zionist organisation in the UK, you might be excused for thinking of a bunch of hard-core "Zionists", in the way that Zionist has been turned into a nasty insult by those anarchists, trendy lefties and Arabs who hate Israel. But the fact is that you won't find any fundamentalists involved. Each and every single person I encountered in my brief stint turned out to be an understanding individual, someone who listened and was considerate of the needs of the other party in the Israel-Arab conflict.

Some might have us believe that being a Zionist means being a narrow-minded fascist, but the truth is that the Zionist Federation does an incredible amount of work on Israel's, and British Jewry's behalf.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Parshat Vayikra - פרשת ויקרא

" וְנֶפֶשׁ, כִּי-תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לַיהוָה--סֹלֶת, יִהְיֶה קָרְבָּנוֹ; וְיָצַק עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן, וְנָתַן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה - And when a man (lit. soul) will bring a meal-offering to Hashem, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon."
- ויקרא ב:א

Just a quick D'var Torah this week as I have an exam tomorrow morning. Still, I like the point being made and I hope you will too. In Rashi's commentary on the verse above, we read that "It doesn't say 'Nefesh' (a soul) with the other voluntary offerings, rather only with the Mincha offering. [And] Who is it that gives the Mincha? A poor person. So Hashem says, 'I will consider it on his behalf as if he offered his own soul.'"

Rashi makes a profound point here, namely that the Hebrew word for soul is employed here for a particular reason. Whereas it would normally use Adam (man), here the word Nefesh (soul) is used to show that the sacrifice of a poor person is considered to be of the highest value in Hashem's eyes; so much so that he considers these kinds of offerings to be as if the giver had given of their soul, whatever that may mean. Now, we can certainly understand why the word "Nefesh/soul" is employed here, but it still seems a little odd. What bothered Rashi so much that he had to explain this usage?

To answer, I'd like to refer to a point made by Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah. He explains that the opening words of the pasuk "And when a soul will bring" can be read in more than one way. We can either read this phrase literally as "when a soul brings a mincha offering," or we can interpret these words to mean "when a soul is brought as a mincha offering." In the offerings that are described preceding this one, the blood of a slaughtered animal, it's very lifeblood, was a part of the sacrifice. This blood made up the "soul" of the offering that was given to Hashem.

The word Mincha, when used in it's regular sense, can be taken to mean a gift, a present. This seems at odds with the Mincha offering itself, for in actuality it was only a very simple thing, consisting of nothing more than wheat flour, oil, frankincense and sometimes some water added — hardly a fancy five course meal. Despite this, because the person deprived himself so that he could to give something, despite his circumstances, Hashem finds his seemingly meagre gift to be a real source of pleasure.

As such, whereas the soul of an animal is the essence of those previous offerings, compared to this offering that consists of but a few ingredients, none of which are expensive or require the (costly) slaughter of an animal, this offering is still regarded highly by Hashem. Perhaps this is because, in Rav Hirsch's words, or at least in the words of his translator, "the Nefesh is not the Korban, but the Makriv." The soul of this offering is not found in the offering, but in the offerer himself.

Isaac Levy, the man who translated Rav Hirsch's commentary from German to English, points out something intriguing in the English version of the Rav Hirsch's edition of the Torah. He explain there that in the section detailing the sin offerings, the name of Hashem used above, the name that is associated with absolute justice (as opposed to another name of God which refers to mercy) is not referred to even once. It's absence serves to teach us that each and every time we sin, Hashem mercifully temporarily suspends true justice.

Rav David Feinstein makes a similar observation on the second pasuk of the parsha. There we read the words, "אדם כי-יקריב מכם קרבן לה, When a man shall bring from you an offering to Hashem." Rav Feinstein notes that one word, מכם, from you, seems to be superfluous. The reason it is written, he says, is so as to indicate that when one brings an offering to the slaughter, he should realise that truly the one who should be slaughtered is none other than himself. Hashem grants us a chance at repenting, but it is only through His mercy that we are permitted to survive so much as a second after sinning. The word מכם teaches that when one brings such an offering, he must have the conviction that he should really have brought the offering literally from himself, and not from some animal "surrogate".

Even though we no longer have a Bet Hamikdash, we can still learn a valuable lesson in regret. When we wrong a human we often go out of our way to apologise to and placate them. But when it comes to lapses in our spiritual obligations it seems that all too often we shrug and say, "Oh well." If we understand the message here, and adopt a genuine and serious attitude towards correcting our mistakes, we can be sure that we can do our best to avoid lapses in the future.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Every day I get an email

Every day of the Israeli working week, I receive an email from a man called Yaakov Kirschen. Now that may not be a name familiar to you, but I imagine that a number of you may know, or at least recognise, his work. Mr Kirschen is better known as the cartoonist behind Dry Bones, which have appeared for many years in the Jerusalem Post.

I understand that coming up with a political cartoon is a task that requires a great deal of talent, creativity and an ability to distill experiences and sentiments into just a few words and images, so I cannot professionally criticise a job that must be much harder than it looks, but I believe I can state that I normally find the cartoons a touch simplistic for my taste, and that the jokes are often a little tired. The daily email that I receive are either the latest Dry Bones or, as Mr. Kirschen dubs them, a "Classic Bones". Today's cartoon is one of the latter, but though it dates back almost twenty years, I find it really does hit the spot.


Immensely reassuring, I'm sure you'll agree! But even though it sometimes seems as if the situation here in Israel is reaching a crisis, Mr. Kirschen makes a heart-warming point, quoting from the Tanach:

"On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves." Zechariah 12:3

Check it out in your own Bible. And if you don't have one, how on Earth are you going to understand the latest news?

Reassuring indeed. For the Dry Bones blog, click here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sorry, it's not newsworthy.

Today has been a tumultuous day in Jerusalem. Following the rededication ceremony of the newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue in the Old City, Arabs across the Middle East have been protesting this latest act of "aggression" by the Israelis. Of course, the fact that this synagogue has been rebuilt after being twice destroyed, once by the Jordanian army in 1948, certainly can be seen as a sign of defiance, but let's not get carried away. It's not a statement of intent or a declaration that we are about to ethnically cleanse all of historical Eretz Yisrael.

Last Thursday, the Elder of Ziyon blog explained that "ever since Ha'aretz reported a (pretty much unfounded) rumor that the Vilna Gaon had predicted that the Third Temple would be built on March 16, 2010, they have been convinced that Israel has evil plans". Disturbed by such Israeli insolence, no doubt, the Wakf, the Islamic authority that controls the Temple Mount, declared that today, the day after the rededication ceremony, will be a "Day of Rage".

Needless to say, nobody argues with the Islamic Authorities, whether they have reason to act and order as they do or not. And so today has proved to be a rather stressful one for the Israeli police, to put it mildly. Take a look at the Muqata Blog's excellent documentation of the ongoing violence. His notes start at 10:20am, and have been updated at least once every hour since.*

Elder of Ziyon has already noted how the headlines in the media have been primarily anti-Israel, framing the events in such a way as to suggest that the rioting was almost passive. (Click here to see this entry.) But there is something else that bothers me; our old friends at the BBC have decided thus far that the issue is unworthy of reporting. I refer you to the screengrab of its main Middle East page:

Spot the non-story.

As clear an example of burying the lead as you will find. The top item states that George Mitchell, the US envoy, will not be coming to the region, as was originally planned. Underneath the headline, a cursory and vague reference to "clashes" is made. Not a hint as to the fact that Arab riots are going on in Jerusalem. Certainly nothing to say that said riots are entirely unprovoked.

I should make clear at this point that if you think that I am being overly-sensitive, we should all remember how the last intifada started; over perceived provocations by Israel regarding the Temple Mount. Provocations that were fictitious but acted on, vigorously, by a willing Arab mob that had been stirred up by its own leadership. And what does the BBC have to say about the matter? Nothing.

*At time of posting, which is 7:25pm.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Parshat Vayakhel - פרשת ויקהל

וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב, וְכָל-אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַיהוָה. וְכָל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-נִמְצָא אִתּוֹ, תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים; וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים, הֵבִיאוּ.כָּל-מֵרִים, תְּרוּמַת כֶּסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת, הֵבִיאוּ, אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נִמְצָא אִתּוֹ עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, לְכָל-מְלֶאכֶת הָעֲבֹדָה--הֵבִיאוּ. וְכָל-אִשָּׁה חַכְמַת-לֵב, בְּיָדֶיהָ טָווּ; וַיָּבִיאוּ מַטְוֶה, אֶת-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְאֶת-הָאַרְגָּמָן, אֶת-תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, וְאֶת-הַשֵּׁשׁ. וְכָל-הַנָּשִׁים אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂא לִבָּן אֹתָנָה, בְּחָכְמָה: טָווּ, אֶת-הָעִזִּים. וְהַנְּשִׂאִם הֵבִיאוּ אֵת אַבְנֵי הַשֹּׁהַם, וְאֵת אַבְנֵי הַמִּלֻּאִים: לָאֵפוֹד, וְלַחֹשֶׁן.

And the men came with/after the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; and every man that brought an offering of gold to Hashem. And every man, with whom was found blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats' hair, and rams' skins dyed red, and sealskins, brought them. Every one that did set apart an offering of silver and brass brought Hashem's offering; and every man, with whom was found acacia-wood for any work of the service, brought it. And every woman that was wise-hearted did spin with her hands, and brought that which she had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats' hair. And the princess brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.
(Exodus 35:22-27)

Much of the text in this week's parsha, Vayakhel, is identical to that found in found in the previous parshiot of Terumah, T'tzavah and Ki Tisa. Here again, we continue to read and learn of the construction of the Bet Hamikdash and the production of its furnishings.

There is one intriguing episode I would like to concentrate on that we read at the very beginning of the second aliyah, which I have quoted in full above. In it, we read of how the Nesi'im, (the princes,) the Anashim (the men) and the Nashim (the women) all came to bring contributions to the temple.

Famously, the word V'haNesi'im (and the princes) is spelt here as והנשאם, which is missing two letters. Normally this word would be properly rendered as והנשיאים. Rashi cites Rav Nassan (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:16) who explains that the two yuds were dropped here by way of rebuke for the princes' "lazy" behaviour. This at first seems at odds with the text; the princes brought precious stones for the Kohen Gadol's beautiful Ephod and Choshen, but as Rashi explains, the princes were not expected to bring the most expensive or rare contributions to the Bet Hamikdash. Rashi explains that their intention was good and that they wanted to wait until the people had brought as much as they could afford, at which time they planned to step in and supply whatever it was that remained to be given. Their mistake was that they were expected to lead their people, not to wait to fill in the gaps.

Interestingly, this episode helps answer a question I've had in my mind whenever I read parshat Naso, the longest in the Torah. Here, the princes make the mistake of not seeming eager to contribute to the Bet Hamikdash and thus find themselves demoted to a cursory mention and even then, only with their name misspelt. They were not punished more seriously as their intention was good and true, but they had done wrong and deserved a slap on the wrist. The commentary in Artscroll's Stone edition of the Chumash points out that "Seeing that they had been remiss in this instance, the leaders did not repeat their mistake when the dedication of the Tabernacle was celebrated. Then, they brought their own generous offerings immediately (Numbers ch.7.)" [1]

This set me thinking right away — what is chapter 7 of Numbers? I knew Numbers to be the Anglicised name for Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah. I also realised that as 7 is a relatively low number, this particular chapter could form part of parshat Naso which appears early on in the book of Bamidbar. I checked it up and so it proved to be; Chapter 7 comprises the fifth, sixth and seventh aliyot of parshat Naso. I had always wondered what was so important about the princes' offerings mentioned there and why they had to be mentioned in full, even though the offerings were similar, if not exactly the same. But now it makes perfect sense to me (and please let me know if you agree); by eagerly and generously giving to the Bet Hamikdash at that time, the princes were rectifying their earlier mistake, which we read about here. As such, the Torah makes a point of appreciating the princes' repentance and ensures each one a full mention; thus delivering a lesson in appreciating other people's efforts in righting past wrongs.

Either way, with this in mind, I would like to make a separate point. I mentioned that the princes, men and women all gave to the Bet Hamikdash. Only, the text is not ordered the way. The opening words of the quote above read "And the men came with/after the women". (Please excuse my clumsy translation; the Hebrew cannot be properly rendered into one English word.) First the women are mentioned, then the men are named, and only then are the princes referred to. With due respect to the women, why are they mentioned first here? Had the ladies been mentioned at the end of the list, it would not have been in breaking with the Torah's normal style (I'm not getting into why, as I don't fully know myself,) so the fact that they are mentioned before the men is interesting and draws our attention.

The Ramban and the Ohr HaChaim both point out this occurrence in their commentaries. Their explanation is that since the jewellery in this verse was mostly worn by women, they are given the credit. The Ramban goes further and actually points out that here the men counted as secondary to the women, in that the women were more eager and enthusiastic to come forward and give to this holy cause. Their husbands were compelled to come with them, as it were. As such, the Torah rightly gives the women pride of place at the head if the list.

Having thought this through, I would like to make a minor point of my own: these scholars lived in a time when women were not treated and regarded the way they are today, for better or for worse. That they saw fit to raise this point was absolutely not a form of apologism. Though it may seem like a relatively minor act, it is always right to give credit when credit is due.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Stone Edition of the Chumash, Artscroll Publications. p519.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Parshat Ki Tisa - פרשת כי תשא

This week's Parsha deals with a wide array of subjects. We read of Am Yisrael's first-ever census, the incense to be used in the Bet Hamikdash and the giving of the first set of luchot to Moshe Rabbeinu - and all that's just in the first Aliyah! We also learn of the subsequent incident of the egel hazahav, the golden calf that the Jews foolishly worshipped with disastrous consequences, the giving of the second set of luchot, and of how Moshe's face became "radiant" (well, that's how Artscroll renders the word, "קרן,") as a result of becoming so close to Hashem. And there's much, much more!

But all these things are very specific things, and are not immediately relevant to us. There is one passage in this week's Sidra that stands out as being obviously applicable to us - the introduction of Shabbat, which also appears in the first Aliyah.

Regarding the Shabbat it says, "ואתה דבר אל-בני ישראל לאמר אך את-שבתתי תשמרו כי אות היא ביני ובניכם לדורותיכם לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם - Now you, speak to Bnei Yisrael saying, 'However, you must observe My Shabbatot, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem, Who makes you holy.'"(פרק לא:יג)

It says that Shabbat was given as an אות, a sign. But wasn't Shabbat given openly, in the Aseret HaDibrot? A sign is something that is slightly concealed, something with a private aspect to it, as it says quite clearly, "a sign between Me and you." In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, isn't it very obvious when we Jews keep Shabbat? Back in London, any old goy passing me on the street could pick out 'the Jew,' all dressed up while the rest of England took a day off. What's indeed is hidden about Shabbat? What is the אות?

Rabbeinu Bachye raises exactly this question. He answers by refering to the Gemara in Beitzah where R' Shimon Bar Yochai says that all the commandments were given openly, but Shabbat is given in a hidden manner, as is clear from the pasuk quoted above. R' Bachye's take on this statement is that Shabbat was given to our souls, which are hidden within the body.

It is absolutely essential to understand the implications of this. I have often heard it said how "sensible" and "reasonable" it is to take one day a week off work. I hear Jews say how good it is that Shabbat affords us time that we may spend with our families. But if we are honest with ourselves, these are not the reasons why we should keep the Shabbat - we keep it because we have been instructed to by Hashem. It is a mitzvah, and therefore we must do it. On the few occasions I have spoken to non-Jews about Shabbat, they have voiced their opinion that it seems "a good idea."

So when it says that Shabbat is an אות, we have to understand that we keep Shabbat because we have agreed to. This is something private between us and Hashem that no other nation will every fathom. We don't need logical reasons as to why we should do mitzvot other than "Hashem commanded us to, therefore we will."

(Of course, I'm not advocating a laissez-faire attitude towards Torah and faith in Hashem; we have to learn about our religion. It is imperative do our best to understand the nature of our relationship with Hashem, but once we have made that leap of faith and are concentrating on the mitzvot themselves, we cannot "pick and mix" our religion based on what seems reasonable to us.)

If Shabbat seemed unreasonable to us, would we still keep it? Unfortunately, for many this proves to be a very real question that challenges them weekly. It is important to remember that reasonable or not, this is our task and we must do it. Shabbat certainly has it's benefits, but we must never forget the reason why we keep it. As R' Bachye says, Shabbat was given to our souls. Or put another way - not to our heads. We don't keep the Torah's laws because they seem rational to our puny intellects, or convenient to us - we keep them because we have to do mitzvot lishma. We do mitzvot for their own sake.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)