Erev Shabbat 2 February 2024 (5784)

Week of 28 January to 3 February 2024

Torah portion: Exodus 18:1-20:23   Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6

Theme: Keep and Remember

The command to remember the Shabbat is at the heart of the ʿaseret hadevarim (Lit. “the ten words”, Ex 20:1-14), central to this week’s parashah. Also known as the Ten Commandments (Heb. Aseret ha-Dib’rot, a term dating back to the late C2), the ʿaseret hadevarim are found in a slightly different form in Deuteronomy (5:6-18, Plaut 477). The ‘aseret hadevarim are repeated, with slight differences in Deuteronomy (5:6-18). The most significant difference between the versions is in the commands to ‘remember’ (zachor, Ex 20:8) and ‘observe’ (shamor, Deut 5:12) the Sabbath.

     Since the C16, in synagogues worldwide, Jews have welcomed Shabbat with the song Lecha Dodi. The song’s lyrics depict the Shabbat as a bride and implore the beloved Divine to come and meet her. Shamor v’zachor, “‘Keep’ and ‘remember’”, they sing, “a single command the Only God caused us to hear; the Eternal is One, God’s name is One; glory and praise are God’s” (Frishman, 138). According to the Talmud (b. Shevu. 20b), God allowed Israel to hear both words simultaneously when the ʿaseret hadevarim were given, thus emphasising two complementary aspects of the Sabbath (Berlin, 358).

     The command to remember the Sabbath in Exodus expresses the positive acts through which people keep the Sabbath in their consciousness or the acts of sanctification such as lighting candles, studying the Torah, drinking, eating and wearing good clothes.  The command to observe (“keep” or “safeguard”) in Deuteronomy is negative in form, emphasising refraining from any acts that might violate the Sabbath (Plaut, 1197).

     It is not enough simply to remember Shabbat; one must also adopt a posture of Shabbat in which action, or inaction, plays a significant part. Just as God ceased the work of creation after six days and rested on the seventh, so are God’s creatures invited to do the same (cf. Gen 2:1-3); all of them. The vision of Shabbat contained in the ʿaseret hadevarim extends to all members of the community. It includes slaves and resident aliens, women and men, and even animals. All are entitled to cease working and to rest. In a world that never seems to stop, the Sabbath provides a countercultural example of what balancing work and rest (recreation) can look like. All members of the community of creation have a right to flourish and a right to freedom.

     It is fitting, therefore, that the second version of the ʿaseret hadevarim links the Sabbath to the divine action of redemption at the heart of the Exodus story (Deut 5:15). Sabbath invites each of us to remember the experience of slavery and the divine gift of freedom that the Sabbath offers. It invites each of us to have empathy for those whose freedom is curtailed.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1) How do I live out the complementarity of God’s call to remember and observe the Sabbath?  2) What posture do I adopt towards work and rest?  How do my actions limit the capacity of others to enjoy Sabbath rest and freedom? 3) How do I acknowledge and foster my own and other’s right to freedom?

Bibliography: Berlin & Brettler Eds. The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edn (New York: Oxford, 2014); Frishman, E. Ed. Mishkan T’filah: World Union Edition (New York: CCAR, 2010); Plaut and Stein, Eds. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (New York: URJ, 2006).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by Mark David Walsh
Bunurong Country, Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013

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