Shabbat Shalom. Today’s parasha is Va’etchanan. It’s the second parasha in the book of Dvarim, known as Deuteronomy in English. This is also called Shabbat Nachmu – consolation, since we switch from the Haftarot of Admonition we read before Tisha B’Av to those of consolation that we read afterwards.
As I mentioned last week, Carie is taking some well-earned time off and as your temporary Dvar Torah Coordinator I am providing a variety of guest speakers to give a drash. We’ve got August covered now but see me at Kiddush if you’d like to give a dvar in the future – opportunities crop up all the time. Anyway, with four openings this summer I decided that I’d look for 3
Imagine my surprise when I read over Va’etchanan and saw what was in the Wallflower Parasha. It’s chock full of good stuff. It’s got Moses pleading with God to be allowed into the Promised Land (spoiler alert for those who came to shul late: God lets him see it but doesn’t let him in). It’s got Moses recounting the moment of revelation at Sinai, telling the people not to forget “what you saw with your own eyes” – although it’s forty years later and the people he’s speaking to were mostly born afterwards. This leads to the really beautiful Jewish concept that all of our souls were at Sinai for revelation. It’s got the drama and the weird sociological implications of Cities of Refuge. It’s got the Decalogue. It’s got the Shma. So much to choose from.
Since I don’t want to talk all day – and you certainly don’t want to listen to me all day – choices must be made. I choose to speak about two of Judaism’s greatest hits that are right here in this week’s parasha: the Ten Commandments and the Shma.
But first – a little background. The book we’re reading, Dvarim, is the fifth book of the Humash, or Five Books of Moses. Dvarim means "words" or "utterances" or "statements" or even "things" – Hebrew being a very compact language, and even more so in biblical times. The title comes from the first line of the book – eleh ha dvarim asher diber moshe – these are the words that Moshe spoke. The English title is from the Greek, coming to us through the Septuagint, and it means “Second Law,” referring to the fact that in this book Moses retells laws already given in Exodus. As Brigitte pointed out last week, the book is traditionally thought to actually represent Moses’ words, and to have been written down by him, except for the last eight verses describing Moses’ death, in third person, which are said to have been written by Joshua. A poignant minority opinion among the rabbis was that Moses himself wrote that description of his own death, dictated to him by God, with tears in his eyes.
Modern scholarship, however, sets the writing of Deuteronomy much later, during the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE. Under Josiah a number of religious reforms were initiated, most notably moving all cultic activities to Jerusalem, eliminating the other temples. This was done based on a book “found” in the Temple in Jerusalem. The story is told in the Second book of Kings. I have it here. [Note: I read the quotes in Hebrew when I came to them and translated them but I’ll just put the English versions here]. “And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe: 'I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.' And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan, and he read it.”
So once the book has been found it is brought to the King and he reads it and finds out that a bunch of religious practices are wrong and institutes his reforms. What was the book? It’s generally accepted that it was the book of Deuteronomy, that it was written during the same period that it was found, and that the same author wrote that book and the books of the Tanakh that are collectively known as the Deuteronomistic History: Joshua, Samuel, and Judges.
Okay, I tell you all that not just to be able to say “Deuteronomistic History” – although it’s a very fun phrase and I’m glad I got to say it. Twice. I mention it because there are differences between the “Second Law” as recounted by Deuteronomy and the first telling of the law in Exodus. And, potentially, those differences can tell us something about the different times and circumstances when the two were written and perhaps lead to a greater understanding that we can apply today. At least that’s my hope.
So...differences and the Ten Commandments. Some of you will remember that a few years ago there was a big push in some quarters to post the Ten Commandments in various public places in the United States. Those who argued for posting them referred to them as a universal code and those who argued against viewed the Ten Commandments as religious in nature and specific to two particular religions – Judaism and Christianity. And the Supreme Court did rule that the Ten Commandments are religious in nature. But a sort of interesting side argument in the public discourse was over what version of the Ten Commandments would be used. Although they were often touted as part of the “Judeo-Christian” ethic that our country is based on, the fact is: there is no “Judeo-Christian” ethic. Judaism and Christianity are distinct religions and “Judeo-Christian” is really a Christian term, much like “Old Testament.” It does not apply to modern Judaism in any of its forms and movements. Far from being universal among Christians and Jews, the versions of the Ten Commandments are not only different between our religion and the Christians, but also among Christians themselves – the Protestant version being somewhat different from the Catholic one.
But I digress. We have enough difference to contend with in our own versions. First question, what are the Ten Commandments? What is each one? We know they are ten and we call it the Decalogue because they are referred to in today’s parasha as the aseret had’varim – the ten utterances. But if we look at the text it’s 12 verses. Now, of course we got the verse divisions from Christianity and they don’t necessarily reflect where one of the ten stops and the next starts. One verse, for example, covers murder, adultery, stealing and bearing false witness, which we consider to be 4 different commandments. Anyway, I point this out to say that it is not a trivial task to determine what the ten are out of this. A canonical set of ten is used throughout the Jewish world, as parsed by the rabbis, but it’s not an obvious division. I’d like to look more closely at a couple of them.
Let’s look first at the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
This is one that is the same in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. It’s interesting, at least to me, that the first part doesn’t sound like a commandment, but rather a statement. Of course they’re not called the Ten Commandments in Hebrew as I mentioned. We have words for commandments – mitzvoth, hukkot, mishpatim – and these are the aseret hadvarim – ten statements. Still, they are generally accepted as being what we are commanded to do. The Rambam taught that there is a commandment implicit in the statement, that we are commanded to believe in God and believe that God brought us out of Egypt. Other commentators have disagreed and said that the commandment is only in the second part, not having other gods, that we are commanded to behave, not believe. It’s an interesting divide.
Let’s take a look at the third commandment, the one about Shabbat. Here’s one where it is different in the two different versions in the Humash. In Deuteronomy it says: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Shomer – observe, guard. Exodus, by contrast says “Zachor” – remember Shabbat. A midrash reconciles these two by saying that God spoke both words simultaneously, something humans cannot do. But another way to look at it is that people living bamidbar – in the wilderness – didn’t have so much of a weekly routine as those in a more complex society in the 7th century BCE. Their days were much the same one to another. They wandered, they ate manna, etc. On Erev Shabbat, they collected extra manna. All they needed to do was remember that Shabbat was approaching. But in a complex society Shabbat observance becomes more important and something you need to plan for and make accommodations for and something you need to protect. Remember the verb shomer means “guard” as well as observe. I think it’s fair to say that in our even more complex society we need both to remember and protect our Shabbat observance, however we conceptualize and actualize it.
One more of the big ten and I’ll move on to the Shma. Let’s look at the tenth commandment, the one against coveting. Here’s the Deuteronomistic version: “Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” This is another one where the Exodus version is different. In Exodus the wife is included as part of the household. Here she is mentioned first and separately.
Bernard Levinson, bless his heart, sees this as a statement of women’s autonomy and importance over time. It’s a bit of a stretch, I think, to view a statement that makes women a separate possession as opposed to just part of the household into some sort of declaration of equality. But I’m willing to jump off from that point and say that if women could go from just part of the household in Exodus to a special and important possession in Deuteronomy, then maybe we can look at those two differing commandments as just two points in an evolution towards full equality. It’s evidence that the role of women can and does change in Judaism and it points us in an arc towards justice and equal treatment. I’ll take it – thank you, Dr. Levinson.
So the Ten Commandments are pretty central to Jewish ethics and religion. The rabbis of the mishnah thought they were becoming too central, that they were leading to the Jewish people neglecting other commandments and they removed them from daily prayer for that reason. Still, they remain important to us. We stand up when they’re chanted. They decorate our synagogues. And we can still learn and grow studying them.
Which leads me to the Shma, which is also in this parasha and is part of our daily prayers, multiple times even. It’s considered the central statement of Jewish belief. There aren’t a lot of prayers in the Chumash – if you look through the siddur I dare say you’ll find much less than 10% is drawn directly from the Torah – but this is a big one that is. Shma, of course, refers both to the one sentence utterance and the longer prayer that includes v’ahavta and so forth. I’m talking about the one line now: Shma Yisrael Adonay Elohaynu Adonay Echad. Hear O Israel, Adonay is our God Adonay is one. In addition to being the prayer we say morning and evening, it’s the prayer of the dying, the one Jews try to make our last words. That dates back to Rabbi Akiva, who died under torture. It’s told that he was on the point of dying and had a smile on his face. He was asked why he was smiling and he said he always wanted to be able to fulfill the commandment of loving God with all your soul, which he took to mean at the point of death. And he said the Shma and the word Echad was spoken with his last breath.
Pretty moving. Another, less uplifting, story about the Shma as the prayer of the dying comes from the commandoes who captured Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem for trial. He asked them if they were Israelis as soon as they grabbed him and they said yes. To which he said he could tell because of their accents and added “I know some Hebrew” and started to recite the Shma. They told him to shut up, not wanting to hear the prayer of the dying coming out of the mouth of one who caused so many Jewish deaths.
It’s interesting, and I think important, that the Shma, the central prayer in Jewish liturgy, is not a prayer to God per se. We aren’t speaking to God when we say it, but to each other, to ourselves. Shma Yisrael – it’s the imperative. Hear what I say, Israel. Hear my words, Jewish people. I find it one of the best exemplars of Judaism as a communal religion. We "do Jewish” in community. We fulfill our obligation and our destiny if you will, by telling each other, by proclaiming our creed of monotheism to the community at large. We live in community – it’s what it means to be a Jew in a very real sense. And, with Shma designated as the prayer of the dying, we are reminded that we die in community too. We’re never alone, even at the end.