Posted by: Subway Conductor | July 31, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Va’etchanan

The fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, is called MishnehTorah or “second law” which is the basis for the English Deuteronomy. The name Mishneh Torah refers to the fact that this book repeats many narratives and laws that were previously presented in the books of Exodus and Numbers. It should be noted that Deuteronomy does not merely reiterate these sections. There are differences between the version found in Deuteronomy and that which was presented earlier. There are differences and discrepancies between the versions which may provide us with a different way of understanding the matter. As an example, let us look at the repetition of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) which we find in this week’s portion.

The commandment to keep the Sabbath in the version of the Decalogue given in the Book of Exodus begins with the Hebrew word zachor – remember. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) In Deuteronomy this commandment begins with the word shamor – observe. “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Deut. 5:12) We find a reference to this discrepancy  in the well-known Friday evening Sabbath song Lecha Dodi. “Shamor ve’zachor be’dibbur echad” – ‘Observe’ and ‘remember’ G-d made us hear in one statement.” The Talmud explains that G-d miraculously caused Israel to hear these two expressions which were uttered simultaneously at Mount Sinai.  From these two words we learn different aspects of Sabbath observance. Shamor indicates the prohibition of defiling the Sabbath by doing work. Zachor implies the positive commandment to keep the Sabbath in mind and to verbally refer to it. Thus, the mitzvah of saying kiddush is learned from the expression zachor.

But the difference between the Sabbath commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy is even more profound than this one word. The rationale for observing the Sabbath is different in the two versions of the Decalogue. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath is the creation of the world.  The commandment states, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Ex.20:11) By observing the Sabbath we acknowledge that G-d created the world. In Deuteronomy, however, the Sabbath is commanded to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt. The commandment states, “… 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 G-d freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deut. 5:14-15) The Sabbath is instituted to remind us of our ethical obligations to others based on our experience of being slaves in Egypt.

We find this dual understanding of the rationale for the Sabbath in the Friday evening Kiddush. In it the Sabbath is called both a “remembrance of creation” and a “memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.”

This example teaches us that the repetitions   we encounter in the Book of Deuteronomy are not merely quotations of the same text from a previous book, but a restatement of the material intended to provide us with a deeper understanding. We have learned from this repetition of the Decalogue both different aspects of the observance of the Sabbath and different explanations of the purpose of the Sabbath.


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