A Modest Proposal
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The Book of Devarim is known as Mishneh Torah because many earlier mitzvot (commandments) and themes are repeated and more fully elucidated here. If we look carefully, we will see that, while the bulk of the material fully conforms to the original versions, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the content.
For example, this week’s parsha, Vaetchanan, repeats the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Utterances). While the Dibrot listed here are identical to the ones listed in Yitro, there is a substantial difference in the Fourth Commandment, Shabbat.
In the first case, the reason for observing Shabbat is because it affirms that Hashem created the world in six days and “rested” on the seventh. By refraining from labor on Shabbat, we emulate the Creator and testify that the universe owes its existence to Him. The foundation of our religious observance is the recognition that we are unique beings who were created by Hashem, in His “Image.”
In Vaetchanan, the reason given for Shabbat is that we were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem removed us from there. At first glance, this clearly poses a challenge to the classical Jewish doctrine that the entire Torah is the word of Hashem and is thus fully consistent and without contradictions. [The two versions of the Ten Commandments not matching suggests that one account is not God’s word.] How are we to reconcile the apparently different explanations for observing Shabbat?
Our great commentators have addressed this issue. Rambam explains that there are two major aspects to Shabbat. The seventh day is holy because, on it, the creation was compete. This concept is expressed in parshat Yitro. But our obligation to “keep” Shabbat is because we were granted our freedom from slavery in Egypt. The “time” of a slave is controlled by his master. Only a free person has control over time, and hence has the discretion to dedicate a day for a specific purpose.
Thus, Moshe introduced nothing new. It is only that the Shabbat is rooted in two basic ideas, one of which was cited in the first presentation of the Dibrot and the other in the second one.
I would like to suggest an additional thought. The miracles of Passover confirm the doctrine of creation. That is because miracles, which overturn the laws of nature, are possible only if the world came into being by the Will of a Creator Who set up the system according to His wisdom. He, alone, has the power to override that system as His will determines.
Although Shabbat affirms the tenet of Creation, by itself, it does not carry with it Malchut Shamayim (Kingship of Heaven). For, having created the world, what, if any relationship, does the Divinity have with it?
In my opinion, it would not be unreasonable to assert that He “leaves the world to its own devices.” After all, the laws of nature manifest great wisdom and design, and man has been beneficently equipped with a rational faculty that enables him to study it and discover its secrets.
The tremendous scientific and technological advances of the last few centuries were not the result of any specific “Divine Revelation,” except that which is embedded in the natural order Hashem ordained.
Man can affirm creation and still be an agnostic. He can deny that G-d has a specific religious program for humanity. He can maintain that Hashem wants man to use his reason to establish moral norms of personal and societal behavior. Thus, the Shabbat of Creation does not constitute the totality of accepting the Kingship of Hashem.
The Exodus from Egypt extends the concept of Creation. The overt miracles that superseded the laws of nature demonstrated that G-d is is continuously involved in the world. He has a specific plan for mankind and “intervenes” to ensure that it is implemented.
While this has consequences for all people, it has specific implications for the Jews. He took us out of Egypt to give us His Torah so we could teach its ideals to all mankind.
Thus, the phenomenon of the Exodus is absolutely essential to our observance of Shabbat. On that day, we proclaim that Hashem is the Ruler of the universe. He is not only the Creator, but also the One who alters the course of history to institute the moral goals He has set for mankind.
It is our unique responsibility, as the Jewish people, to observe Shabbat. This is not just an individual obligation, but a national one as well. It is expressed in a prayer recited on Friday evening. “And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in six days Hashem made heaven and earth and on the seventh day He rested.…”
There has been a movement, of late, for Jews to assert their right to visit and pray on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). This is not a simple matter and is very controversial, from both religious and political standpoints.
However there is no doubt about the sanctity of the Shabbat and our profound duty to facilitate its observance by the entire nation. Nothing could be a greater Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of Hashem's Name) or a more meaningful take away from our observance of Tisha B'Av. We must pursue this endeavor with great wisdom, love, and respect for all Jews. May we merit to achieve it.
Shabbat Nachamu shalom.