The duality of the Shabbat message
The Parasha

The duality of the Shabbat message

This week's parasha, the Ten Commandments and the notion of balance in Judaism.

While every well-established way of life has its advantages and admirable qualities, I have always found Judaism to be compelling because of the high regard it holds for balance.

Judaism bids us to aspire to a life that strikes a balance in so many ways. We strive for balance between our individual needs and those of the community; between living in the present and honouring the past; between spirituality and material investment; and so much more.

One salient example of this dialectic is found in the Ten Commandments, found (for a second time in the Torah) in this week’s parasha.

It is often noted that the Ten Commandments themselves can be divided into two sections. The first section deals with a person’s relationship with God and spirituality (monotheism, rejection of idolatry and blasphemy, etc) while the second section focuses on a person’s relationship with other people (not killing, stealing, being jealous, etc).

This in itself is an important balance to attempt to achieve, living a life that focuses equally on our spiritual and our communal existence.

In truth, this same message is also found in the fact that we actually have two different versions of the Ten Commandments. The first version is in Shemot, as part of the Sinai experience that comes on the heels of the Israelites’ emergence from Egypt.

Our second version is found in the early stages of Devarim as Moshe begins his long swansong to his people on the eve of their much-anticipated entry into the Holy Land.

I use the term “versions” to refer to these two texts because they indeed are not identical. While a few words differ here and there throughout the commandments, the biggest difference can be found in the treatment of the fourth commandment, Shabbat.

Besides for the first word, both versions begin almost identically:

“Remember (or Observe) the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and accomplish all your deeds, but the seventh day is Shabbat to Hashem, your God; you shall not do any work…”

In terms of behaviour, these sources contain the same message – work during the week, and refrain from work on this holy day. Rather, dedicate it to Hashem.

But then the Torah goes on to explain why exactly is it that we have this day of rest, and this is where the paths of these parallel texts begin to diverge.

In Shemot, we read that “in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all they contain, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Hashem blessed the seventh day to make it holy.”

Putting aside the issue of the extent to which the text is referring to six literal days or not, the thrust of Shabbat (according to this version) is that we mimic God the Creator. Just as God “worked” to create, we must work to create; and just as God “rested”, we too must rest. (Presumably, Shabbat is therefore a time to admire God’s creation).

On the other hand, Devarim tells an entirely different tale. While both texts mention that our households and all those we have influence over should cease working on Shabbat, Devarim explains that this is “so that our manservants and maidservants may rest like us.”

The text goes on to say: “And you shall remember that you were a slave to the land of Egypt, and Hashem your God took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Hashem, your God has commanded you to make the Shabbat day.”

Amazingly, Devarim doesn’t refer to creation at all! Nothing about God “the Creator”. Rather, on Shabbat (in this version) we mimic God “the Liberator”. Just as God redeemed us from the slavery of Egypt, so too must we allow those who work for us to experience liberation. (Presumably, Shabbat is therefore a time to celebrate the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their social status.)

Taken together, these differing explanations for why we have Shabbat paint a balanced picture of what constitutes a full life: combining a spiritual appreciation for the wonder of our physical world, and an ethical commitment to the material welfare of others.

Shamir Caplan is rabbi of Congregation Beit Aharon at the Arnold Bloch Synagogue, Gandel Besen House, Mount Scopus Memorial College.

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