parasha

Vaetchanan 5778

Faith and Action – Vaetchanan
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

In this week’s portion Vaetchanan we listen to the speeches delivered by Moses shortly before he departed from the nation he had liberated from Egypt and led on their journey through the desert. During these long speeches, Moses warned the nation again and again not to be tempted into assimilating into the cultures of the nations residing in Canaan (as the Land of Israel was known). As background to these warnings, Moses reminds the nation of the Revelation at Mount Sinai where they experienced Divine Revelation and heard the Ten Commandments – the ten basic tenets of the Torah. Moses does not spare words and details the commandments.

But here, we readers, are surprised. The Ten Commandments said at Mount Sinai were written in the book of Exodus when the Revelation is described. They are written again in our Torah portion as said my Moses. Surprisingly, they are not identical. There are differences between the Ten Commandments in Exodus and now in Deuteronomy. Most of the differences are minute, but one of them is significant and that’s the one we will examine here.

In the Ten Commandments written in Exodus, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is written with a clear reason:


"Six days may you work and perform all your labor,but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it".
(Exodus 20, 9-11)


The Ten Commandments appear again in Deuteronomy, but with a seemingly completely different reason:


"Six days may you work, and perform all your labor,but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day".

(Deuteronomy 5, 13 – 15)


The two reasons seem totally different. In the first, we must keep the Sabbath in order to remember that God created the world; in the second version – it is so slaves will rest on the Sabbath since God liberated us from slavery in Egypt.


How do we explain this distinction? Was Moses not able to turn back to Exodus to see the “original” phrasing of the Ten Commandments? Biblical commentators dealt with this extensively, trying to ascertain the connection between the two reasons.


The reason that appears in Exodus is faith-based: we must remember that God alone created the entire world, and therefore we are commanded to rest on the Sabbath and internalize the belief that the reality in which we exist is not coincidental. There is Divine supervision. Creation of the world is not a historic fact, but an awareness that we live with that teaches us that our existence is not an insignificant accident. Man – and the entire world – exist due to intent and for a purpose. Faith in creation changes life into a lofty mission.


But what is this mission? What kind of life are we directed to live by faith in creation? We read about this in the book of Deuteronomy – especially in the speech made a moment before entering the land and establishing the Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Man’s mission is to internalize that all his power is given to him by the grace of God, and therefore he is obligated to act in accordance to these rules and allow the weaker levels of society to live with dignity.


In a world where slavery was commonplace, slaves were at the bottom of society’s strata, lacking even basic rights and worthless in the eyes of free men. In actuality, slaves were seen as tools whose purpose was to satisfy the needs of their master. Faith opposes this view and demands respect and dignity for all people: there is no person who lacks rights, no one who does not deserve rest. Faith in creation – as is written in Exodus – directs man and demands of him to allow for the dignity of all other men and even animals, as is expressed in Deuteronomy.


Jewish faith is not something left to beliefs of the heart alone. It demands that man live a life of transcendence, of values, of benefitting others, of acting with dignity toward all others, no matter what their status is.

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