Sunday, September 24th | 9 Tishri 5784

July 27, 2023 10:21 am

Shabbat VaEtchanan: Law or Lore

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s Torah reading is remarkable because it combines the two most important texts in the Torah: The Ten Commandments and the Shemah. Although the Ten Commandments first appear in the second book of the Torah, they are repeated here in Devarim. And almost immediately afterwards, is the first paragraph of the Shemah, which we recite every day.

Devarim consists of a farewell speech by Moses, which goes over the history of the 40 years in the wilderness, and reiterates the fundamental laws and principles that were both given on Sinai and expanded on throughout the Torah. But there are minor differences between the two texts of the Ten Commandments. In Shemot, the Torah says remember the Shabbat to keep it holy. In Devarim, it says to keep the Shabbat. In Shemot, the reason for the Shabbat is that Hashem created the world. But in Devarim, it says we should keep it because we were slaves in Egypt.

People often ask why the two texts are different. Couldn’t Moses agree on one version? Human language is limited. We can only use one word at a time, and sometimes concepts are more complex. They need several words to give the full picture. The same logic applies in explaining why when Moses goes over the Torah, he adds a new variation that clarifies the message of the Torah.

Here in Devarim, Moses puts the first paragraph of the Shemah close to the Ten Commandments. He could have put it somewhere else. He connects the two, however, because as he gets to the end of the book, he wants to talk about both the legal issue of the  Ten Commandments and the moral and spiritual issues of how we relate to Hashem. We need both to get a full picture of the richness of Jewish life, and how we should behave as human beings.

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We sometimes object to there being too many rules and laws, and sometimes we forget the spirit of the law. Sometimes we get so carried away with our own lives that we tend to forget our moral and religious obligation both to God and to other human beings. It’s not always easy to be a good person. It can take a lot of our energy and determination. But that’s the challenge of life, to do our best and accept we are all different. As a famous Hassidic master said, “When we get to heaven, we will not be asked why we weren’t Moshe. We will be asked why we weren’t ourselves!”

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.

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