VaEt'chanan - 5779
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
“Shamor v’zachor” opines the poet in the beautiful L’cha Dodi prayer: “Observe and remember.” These words come from the Ten Commandments, or more specifically, the commandment to make every seventh day a shabbat, a day of rest and refreshment for both body and soul.
In the book of Exodus, during the Revelation at Sinai, God commanded us: “lizkor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Ex. 20:8] Yet, when Moses recounts the Ten Commandments in this week’s parasha, he s ays: “shamor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Deut. 5:12]
Why would God say “remember” and then forty years later Moses “observe?” Did Moses misremember? Possibly, but unlikely. Whenever anything is repeated in Torah, and there is a change in the text, that is a ‘red flag’ for us to pay close attention. When the Israelites first heard the commandments, the very idea of Shabbat was new and radical to them because the only way of life they had known previously was as Egyptian slaves. They had no experience or even knowledge of Shabbat, and needed to be reminded every week. Forty years later, presumably, Shabbat was no longer a new idea – so Moses urged the Israelites to keep it going.
So far, so good.
Then, in the 16th Century, kabbalist Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote the L’cha Dodi prayer. He changed the order to “observe and remember,” choosing to quote Moses first and then God. To be fair, he wanted to create a poetic acrostic of his name using the first letters each of the first eight verses. “Shamor” starts with the same letter shin as his name “Shlomo.” If he followed the order of the Torah, the acrostic would fail in the very first verse!
I think there is more.
It made sense for the ancient Israelites first to remember, and then to observe. For today’s Diaspora Jews it is different. The secular flow of time does not follow the Hebrew calendar. Saturday is not a day of rest (except in Israel). We are pulled in so many different directions, that it is easy, outside of an orthodox community, to just go with the flow. Far too many of us no longer mark Shabbat regularly, if at all. As a result, we have forgotten what once we knew.
Shabbat is a radical, revolutionary practice. It was radical when God first introduced it to Israel, and it still is today. Until the advent of Shabbat, the world claimed us seven days a week. Shabbat teaches us that while the world does have a claim on us for six days, on the seventh day we can be free. It reminds us that while we need to work, both for the world and for ourselves, even God needed a day of rest. Shabbat undermines the status quo that never lets up, it lifts us above the fray so that we can reconnect with what matters most: each other, ourselves and our Creator. It is not a day for sleeping, but for cultivating the spirit, deepening our wisdom, and strengthening our relationships.
Today, far too many of us have lost the experience of Shabbat, and this is a multigenerational loss. The command to “remember” is meaningless, because we have no memories now to draw on even as the concept of shabbat is not new. A reminder will not work, we are already too busy. We need to “do” Shabbat first, even if it is only for a taste, so that we can experience what Shabbat can truly be for us. Then we can understand and remember and truly celebrate this precious and holy gift.