31 July/1 Aug: Va’etchanan :Shabbat comes in 8:36 pm, ends 9:45 pm
Parashat Va’etcḥanan: Shamor v’Zakhor
This week’s Torah portion recalls the giving of the Ten Commandments. We see the Ten Sayings laid out again before us, harkening back to the revelatory experience at Mt Sinai. However, there are some small differences in this retelling of the story. Most famously, we are given two verbs for what we are supposed to do regarding Shabbat: according to the Exodus narrative, we are commanded to zakhor et-yom haShabbat (to remember the Sabbath day); here in Deuteronomy, we are told to shamor et-yom haShabbat (to observe the Sabbath day).
Interestingly, this isn’t the only difference. Each of the versions of the Shabbat commandment comes with an explanation. We must ‘remember Shabbat’ (zakhor) because the Divine created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; we must ‘observe Shabbat’ (shamor) because the Divine brought us out of slavery in Egypt. It occurs to me that these two explanations for the Shabbat day are about paradigms of power. Humans exert power over one another in a variety of ways. One of those ways is that we manipulate material around us. When we build and we burn, we are exerting the kind of power that God exerted over creation. The second mode of power is that we form societal structures in which we exert social power over one another. When we participate in trade, when we go to work and act as employers or employees, we are partaking in a stratification of society that, at its most extreme, is like Egypt.
These paradigms of power shed some light on the concept of rest. Shabbat is a freeing experience – it gives us a break from cooking and cleaning, from being glued to our email inboxes, from going to our workplaces, and so much more. But here, it seems that Shabbat is freeing from a different perspective. For one day every week, we pull back from exerting power over the world, and we pull back from exerting power over one another.
We live in a time in which we might not feel acutely the power that we possess. There are many unknowns. But perhaps Shabbat can remind us to do better with the areas of control that we do hold, and with the incredible potential of being human in this world.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman