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Parashat Hashavua for Va'etchanan 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Va'etchanan

Rabbi Fred Morgan
Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, VIC

'Remember' and "Protect': An exercise in interpretation

A bye-product of the coronavirus, especially for those of us who are locked down in our homes, is that it is easy to lose our sense of time.  Even the days of the week begin to blur into one another.  I’m constantly checking my diary to make sure I am on the right day.  Under these circumstances Shabbat, our “palace in time” as AJ Heschel described it, becomes even more important to us.  It is not merely a marker in time, it also provides our week with a flow and rhythm that it would otherwise lack.  I’ve noticed that Shabbat truly is the highpoint of my coronavirus week.  No matter what has happened on the other days, Shabbat is my opportunity to relax and rest, spiritually even more than physically. 

In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, Moses repeats the Ten Commandments to the people as they stand on the borders of the Promised Land.   It is well known that this version of the Ten Commandments differs in several respects from the version originally given at Mt Sinai.  I am going to focus my comments here on just one word, the first, in the Shabbat commandment.  In the Book of Exodus the commandment opens, "Zachor et yom haShabbat - Remember the Sabbath day."  Here in Deuteronomy Moses says, "Shamor et yom haShabbat - Protect the Sabbath day." What sense can we make of this difference?

One traditional explanation follows a midrash which famously teaches us that God spoke a single word but it was heard in different ways by the people; some heard zachor and others shamor.  This is not such an odd interpretation.  Psychologists know that it is common for people to hear the same thing in different ways according to their temperaments.  Some of the biggest broiguses we experience are due to what we think of as misunderstandings based on this phenomenon.  As a Rabbi giving a sermon, I am aware that I can control what comes out of my mouth but I cannot control what enters into the ears of the listeners. One word, two understandings.

This midrash is the inspiration for the opening verse of the poem "L’kha Dodi - Come my beloved", which we sing to welcome Shabbat.  The verse goes, Shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad - 'Protect’ and ‘Remember’ in a single utterance.”  In effect, it synthesises our two versions of the Shabbat commandment into a single divine word.  Because the Exodus rendition zachor precedes Deuteronomy’s shamor in the Torah account, you might think that L’kha Dodi has them in the wrong order. That’s true, but for the fact that the author of the hymn, Shlomo Alkabetz, wanted to inscribe his autograph into the song by starting the verses with the letters of his name in order.   To do this, he needed to begin the first verse with the Hebrew letter shin, as in his name Shlomo.  Hence, Shamor takes first place in the verse.

I’d like to offer another interpretation, also based on tradition but focusing more on the chronology of the story in Torah.  When the Ten Commandments are given at Mt Sinai, the narrative is dealing with the generation who had been slaves in Egypt and had only recently emerged from the iron furnace of bondage into freedom.  By the time our portion takes place, Moses is addressing a new generation, born to be free in the land of promise.   The meaning of Shabbat shifts from one generation to the next, and the difference in language reflects this.

For the first generation, the commandment is to remember Shabbat.  It is easy for people with a slavish mentality to forget or overlook Shabbat.  For them every day is the same.  There is no rest, and no day of rest.  In such circumstances the people need positive actions which will set this day apart from others, make it special and complete so it will spark their memory each week as they encounter it.  The extras of Shabbat, such as welcoming the day with candles, reciting b’rakhot, drinking wine and eating challah in a double portion are all encompassed in the word “remember.” 

The generation that is free is not in danger of forgetting Shabbat.  Being free, they know how their week is organised around a “weekend.” The concern is not that they overlook Shabbat but that, being aware of Shabbat, they deliberately ignore it. This is a different issue.  It is about preventing Shabbat from losing its sacred character and meaning.  In order to prevent them from wilfully ignoring Shabbat, this generation are bidden to protect it by avoiding activities that are commonplace on the other days of the week.  These are the negative mitzvot, changing one’s pattern of work, not using technology in the same way and so forth.  By deliberately behaving in a different, “Shabbesdik,” way they protect Shabbat from collapsing into just another work day.

According to this interpretation the different words used in the two versions of the Ten Commandments give us the parameters for our Shabbat observance today: positive guidelines such as welcoming Shabbat with candles, making kiddush, reading from Torah together in synagogue or on Zoom, and so forth; and opportunities to protect the sanctity of Shabbat by recalibrating our behaviour and avoiding mundane labour. By both remembering and protecting the Sabbath, we contribute to overcoming the tyranny of the coronavirus and restoring a holy rhythm to our lives.

Shabbat shalom!

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