"Observe" and "Remember" were Pronounced in a Single Utterance

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
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PARASHAT VAETCHANAN

 

We dedicate this shiur to the Armies of Israel, our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in the Israel Defense Forces, as well as our civilian neighbors to the north and south. Yeshivat Har Etzion in particular, as well as the entire Alon Shevut and Gush Etzion community, continue to welcome "refugees" into our midst, into our dormitories, our cafeterias, as well as our private homes, and will continue to do so, until they can return safely to their homes. May Hakadosh Barukh Hu have mercy upon His people and upon His land.

 


"Observe" and "Remember" were Pronounced in a Single Utterance

by Rav Michael Hattin

 

NOTE: The first half of this article appeared last year under the title "Moshe's Liberties with the Text – Part 1."  At the time, I had intended to complete the discussion with a follow-up article that unfortunately never appeared.  I offer that follow-up now with this expanded version.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Last week's parasha concluded with Moshe's recollection of the astounding victories over Sichon and ‘Og, the ominous Amorite kings who inhabited the Transjordanian highlands.  Those remarkable events occurred at the end of the wilderness journeys, as the people of Israel finally drew close to their destination.  The triumphs ushered in Israel's wars of conquest and ignited in Moshe the fervent hope that perhaps God's decree barring him from entering the land of Canaan had in the interim been relaxed, but to no avail, for soon that hope was dashed:

 

I entreated God at that time saying: "Almighty God, You have started to show Your servant Your greatness and Your forceful hand, for there is no power in heaven or upon earth that can match Your deeds and Your strength.  Let me please pass over so that I may see the good land that is on the other side of the Yarden, this fine range of mountains and the Levanon."  But God was angry with me on your behalf and He would not listen to me.  God said to me: "it is enough!  Do not continue to speak to Me any more concerning this matter!  Rather, ascend to the top of the heights and lift up your eyes to the west, to the north, to the south and to the east, and see it with your own eyes, for you will surely not pass over this Yarden.  Charge Yehoshu'a and strengthen and encourage him, for he will traverse before this people, and he will cause them to possess the land that you will see."  Therefore, we encamped in the valley, opposite Bet Pe'or… (3:23-29).

 

Wholly resigned to the Divine dictate that sealed his fate, Moshe now turned his attention to the people of Israel.  In soaring words, he encouraged them to cleave to God's laws while he simultaneously warned them about the perils of idolatry, he recalled for them the pivotal events associated with their wilderness sojourns, and he then began to explicate for them God's statutes and laws.  In the course of his remarks, Moshe mentioned the decisive episode of the revelation at Sinai, reinforcing the theme of the binding covenant, emphasizing the idea of Divine immediacy, and proclaiming once again for the benefit of the new generation God's thunderous Decalogue that was to forever alter the course of human history.

 

 

ADDRESSING AND RESOLVING INCONGRUITIES

 

Since the Book of Devarim is introduced from the outset as Moshe's own impassioned words to Israel and his personal recalling of their history, it is only natural that there should exist discrepancies between his retelling of earlier events and the events themselves, as they are recorded elsewhere in the Torah.  Often these seeming incongruities reflect nothing more than didactically-inspired shifts in nuance that can be easily resolved by considering the nature of the audience that now receives Moshe's teachings as well as the temporal setting for his words.  That is to say that the generation poised to enter the land of Canaan and to grapple with the urgent challenges associated with founding a state inhabits a very different existential plane than their deceased forebears.  The lessons that they glean from the experiences of the Exodus will necessarily be different, at least in some respects, than for those that actually lived through those events.  And their children and their grandchildren in turn, though they faithfully preserve the memory of those experiences, will extract from them a message that is pertinent to them and to their situation. 

 

Those that wandered in the wilderness in fruitless search of a home possessed a very different destiny than those that now prepare to cross the rushing waters of the Yarden and to set down roots in the new land; it is therefore perfectly reasonable for Moshe's words to the latter, when he recalls an earlier event in Israel's history, to reflect an altered set of priorities.  Thus, for example, Moshe's recounting of the sin of spies is markedly different in Sefer Devarim than the actual narrative of the event as recorded in Sefer BeMidbar.  In our book, Moshe more emphatically places the burden of responsibility for the debacle upon the people and upon their leaders, for his intent is not only or even primarily to objectively recall events of the past but rather to communicate guiding instruction for the future.   

 

Occasionally, however, the clash of sources is more acute, especially when Moshe presents us with an ostensibly verbatim account that is markedly dissimilar to the actual occurrence.  The Decalogue, God's pronouncement of the Ten Guiding Principles, offers us a rare opportunity to consider both varieties of discrepancies, the easily resolved extrinsic and the much more serious intrinsic, and we will view the matter through the perspective of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain)  in his lengthy remarks to the episode as recorded in Sefer Shemot (Chapter 20).  On the one hand, some of the differences can be understood clearly as acknowledgement and affirmation of the fact that Moshe now addresses different listeners; on the other hand some of the divergences seem so glaring as to be inexplicable.

 

 

THE OVERALL CONEXT OF THE DECALOGUE

 

Certainly, Moshe's description of the overall context, while understandably more concise in our account, is accurate.  His mention of the covenant (5:2), his description of the immediacy and intimacy of the God-man encounter (5:4), his recounting of the awe-inspiring fire that enveloped the mountain (5:4), and his reference to the special role that he played in the communication of God's word (5:5), are all well-attested to from Sefer Shemot (see Shemot 19:16-25).  On the other hand, his significant shift in emphasis in claiming that God's covenant at Sinai was struck "not with our ancestors…but rather with us, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3) is a deliberate attempt to inspire the people soon entering Canaan with the nobility as well as with the gravity of their mission.  Their fathers who stood at Sinai, though they heard the word of God from the midst of the fire, all perished, but the eternal covenant that God sealed with them at that time did not dissipate with their demise; rather, its provisions were transferred to their offspring to be realized by them in the new land. 

 

Significantly, the medieval commentaries, confronted with the obvious disagreement between Moshe's recollection and the events themselves (for surely God DID seal His covenant with their ancestors at Sinai!), were unwilling to take Moshe's words at face value.  Almost all of them (see Rav Sa'adia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Chizkuni) added a single word to his account that they believed could adequately reconcile the texts.  When Moshe says "not with our ancestors…but rather with us, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3), what he means to say is "not with our ancestors ONLY…but rather with us ALSO, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3).  In other words, Moshe does not deny that God in fact concluded a covenant with those that stood at Sinai.  But since that generation perished almost to a man and their fulfillment of the covenant was incomplete, it is their children in their stead that must presently be encouraged to follow and to fulfill God's word.  What Moshe does now, therefore, is to downplay that first, failed contract by modifying the relative value of its component provisions.  Though in a formal sense the terms of the covenant may have been technically concluded with the parents, its ongoing fulfillment, which is anywise any covenant's main purpose, must now devolve upon the children.  Thus Moshe's account of the sealing of the covenant can be reconciled with the narrative of the event itself, by carefully considering the nature and needs of Moshe's present audience.

 

 

THE UTTERANCE CONCERNING THE SHABBAT

 

Concerning the Decalogue that follows as it is recounted by Moshe (5:6-17), it is mostly synonymous with the version preserved in Sefer Shemot (Shemot 20:2-13).  Though there are occasional words that are rearranged or syntactical features that are not the same (especially concerning the use of the conjunction), the overall convergence of the two texts is reasonable.  There is, however, one glaring exception to the above general analysis and that concerns the utterance pertaining to the Shabbat.  Here, there are differences of vocabulary and of emphasis that are striking and seemingly irreconcilable.  In Shemot 20, the fourth utterance reads:

 

Remember ("Zachor") the Sabbath day to sanctify it.  Six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to God your Lord.  Neither you, nor your son, daughter, servant, maidservant, beast nor convert that dwells within your gates shall do any manner of work.  This is because in six days God made heaven, earth, the sea and all that they contain, and He rested on the seventh day.  Therefore, God blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it (20:7-10).

 

In Moshe's recounting, however, the command concerning the Shabbat says as follows:

 

OBSERVE ("Shamor") the Sabbath day to sanctify it, AS GOD YOUR LORD COMMANDED YOU.  Six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to God your Lord.  Neither you, nor your son, daughter, servant, maidservant, OX, DONKEY, OR ANY beast or the convert that dwells within your gates shall do any manner of work, IN ORDER THAT YOUR SERVANT AND MAIDSERVANT SHALL REST AS YOU DO.  YOU SHALL REMEMBER THAT YOU YOURSELF WAS A SLAVE IN THE LAND OF EGYPT AND GOD YOUR LORD TOOK YOU OUT OF THERE WITH A STRONG HAND AND WITH AN OUTSTRETCHED ARM.  THEREFORE, DID GOD YOUR LORD COMMAND YOU TO FULFILL THE SABBATH DAY (5:11-14).

 

Once again, some of the differences between the two texts are slight while others are glaring.  The opening word is, for example, entirely different!  In Shemot, we are bidden to remember and here we are bidden to observe.  The inclusion in Moshe's account of some further elaboration of the generic "beast" mentioned in Sefer Shemot is notable but not necessarily at odds with the earlier text.  But concerning the thrust of the Shabbat legislation, there appears to be no convergence at all.  In Sefer Shemot, the reason advanced for the necessity to abide by the Sabbath provisions relates to the act of creation: because God created the universe in six days and ceased from His activity on the seventh day, so too must we acknowledge His central role in the cosmic order by following His example.  But now in Sefer Devarim when Moshe spells out the reason for the Shabbat, God's creation is entirely absent from the text.  Instead, the Shabbat is to be observed because of its critical thematic link with the servitude in Egypt and because its observance alone can foster a profound identification with those that are less fortunate.  Because there we were slaves who toiled tirelessly and without respite, we must therefore ensure that our own servants are granted a day of rest.  Because God rescued us from bondage and oppression, therefore must we be sensitive to those who must labor for others, by extending also to them a break from their labors.  Because we ourselves experienced state-sponsored serfdom and were liberated from it, therefore we are charged to ensure that our own servants are similarly discharged from their duties at least one day a week.  The emphasis for Moshe, then, is not the Creation of the world but rather the Exodus, not the internalization of the truth that God is transcendent and all-powerful but rather that He is close by and concerned. 

 

How then to explain Moshe's reiteration?  If Moshe purports to tell the people of Israel exactly what transpired at Mount Sinai, how then can he take so many liberties with GOD'S OWN PRONOUNCEMENTS?  What, in fact, did God actually utter as the people of Israel stood expectantly at the foot of smoldering Mount Sinai, and for what purpose would Moshe modify matters so much in his parting address to the people of Israel?  The implications of the discussion, of course, pertain not only to our particular context, but to Sefer Devarim as a whole. 

 

 

THE EXPLANATION OF RASHI

 

Rashi (11th century, France) offers a well-known interpretation from the ancient Rabbis:

 

Observe the Sabbath day – In the first Decalogue, it says "Remember the Sabbath day…"  Both of them were stated in one utterance and as one word, and both were heard as one…(Mechilta of Rabbi Yishma'el, Masechta Yitro, Chapter 7).

 

This explanation, that has become enshrined as part of the Sabbath eve liturgy and immortalized in Rabbi Shelomo Alkabetz's "Lecha Dodi" hymn, essentially maintains that there is NO discrepancy between the accounts.  In fact, God simultaneously uttered BOTH words – "Remember" and "Observe" – at Sinai, and both words were remarkably heard and understood by Israel in the same moment.  Clearly, such an occurrence is only possible in the dimension of the miraculous, but the revelation at Sinai was just such an event.

 

As for the other discrepancies, Rashi is not overly concerned with them.  "Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it, AS GOD YOUR LORD COMMANDED YOU" is understood to mean "before the giving of the Torah, for at Mara they were commanded concerning the Shabbat" (commentary of Rashi to 5:11).  In other words, Moshe is simply indicating to the people of Israel that the Sabbath is so central as to have even preceded the Decalogue – for the people arrived at Mara in the immediate aftermath of their exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (see Shemot 15:22-26).  But there is no contradiction here between his words and what God actually stated at Sinai, only an amplification.  And as for the reason advanced in Sefer Shemot for the necessity to abide by the Sabbath provisions, namely that their observance commemorates God's act of creation, while here in Sefer Devarim the Shabbat rest recalls the thankless lot of the slave and the need to identify with his or her plight, Rashi once again glosses over the divergence and focuses instead upon the more profound theme:

 

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt – for this very reason God redeemed you, so that you might be His servant and observe His commands.

 

That is to say that the message of the Shabbat is particularly pertinent to former slaves who experienced liberation firsthand and ought therefore to appreciate its significance.  We were redeemed by God from Pharaoh's backbreaking labors so that we might serve Him instead, with our hearts and with our minds.  For Rashi, then, what Moshe tells the people of Israel now is a message that is relevant to them and was equally relevant to their parents.  It is thus not to be understood as a contradiction to the earlier Decalogue but rather as a complementary message, and presumably part and parcel of God's original communication at Sinai.  Rashi leaves us to ponder whether he thinks that all of the Decalogue in our parasha is a record of God's multi-layered utterance, with all of it having been miraculously communicated and miraculously comprehended. 

 

 

THE INTERPRETATION OF THE IBN EZRA

 

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) authored two versions of his commentary on the book of Shemot.  One of them is similar in style to his commentaries on the other books of the Torah and, like them, is characterized by a pronounced conciseness that sometimes creates no small degree of obfuscation.  The other is a much lengthier and developed version that relates not only to the straightforward exploration of the immediate context but also often offers larger and more involved thematic discussions.  These two commentaries are known respectively as the "Perush HaKatzar" (concise commentary) and the "Perush HaAroch" (lengthy commentary), and occasionally they are even at odds with each other.  Sometimes an explanation that is offered by the Ibn Ezra in the Perush HaKatzar is rejected by him in the Perush HaAroch and sometimes it is the other way around!  For the purposes of this lesson, we quote his comments from his lengthy commentary:

 

Thus says Avraham the author: It is the convention of Hebrew speakers to sometimes explain their words at great length and clarity, while at other times they express the necessary idea with an economy of language, so that the listener might understand the essence.  REALIZE THAT THE WORDS ARE LIKE MATERIAL BODIES WHILE THE MESSAGE IS LIKE THE SPIRIT, for the body is to the soul only a vehicle.  Thus it is the convention of all wise men, whatever language they may be speaking, to preserve the message while not being concerned with using the exact same words, since the message is anywise the same.  Let me offer some examples… (introductory commentary of the Ibn Ezra to the Decalogue, Shemot 20:1).

 

Here, Ibn Ezra shares with us the core of his idea.  Whenever there is a repetition in a Biblical text, whenever an episode or a law is repeated in the Torah, different words may be used in that second version.  This need not concern us, since the purpose of the repetition is to convey the essential MEANING of the matter to the listener or to the reader.  The words themselves, says Ibn Ezra, are only vehicles for the communication of the idea, much like the physical body is a vessel for the essential soul to complete its tasks.  That being the case, we need not be perturbed by these seemingly two different versions of the Decalogue, for in fact it is only the message of both that need be (and is) the same.  The respective language of both may therefore exhibit divergences great and small as long as the fundamental message is identical, for that is the crux of the matter. 

 

 

"REMEMBER" AND "OBSERVE"

 

Concerning the specific matter of "Remember" and "Observe," Ibn Ezra elaborates:

 

Now I will speak concerning "Remember" and "Observe."  Realize that the meaning is preserved and not the actual words.  Recall that Yitzchak told ‘Esav that he wanted to bless him "before I die" (Bereishit 27:4).  When Rivka related the matter to Ya'acov, however, she reported that he said "so that I might bless you BEFORE GOD before I die" (IBID, 27:7).  Why did she add the words "BEFORE GOD" (if Yitzchak himself did not say them)?  The answer is that she realized that Yitzchak was God's prophet and that the blessing that he would utter would be a form of prophecy.  She therefore told Ya'acov "before God," because she was explaining to him the REASON FOR THE BLESSING. 

 

In a similar manner did Moshe speak.  The Decalogue as reported here in Sefer Shemot is the word of God verbatim, without addition or deficiency, and these words alone were recorded on the tablets of the covenant…but the Decalogue preserved in Parashat VaEtchanan are the words of Moshe.  The proof for this is the fact that it twice mentions "as God your Lord commanded you" (Devarim 5:11,15). 

 

At the base of the brain is the faculty of memory and it is there that images are stored.  Memory thus includes observance.  The MEANING of "Remember" is to be always cognizant of the day of the week, so that the seventh day be OBSERVED, so as not to perform labor on it.  The REASON FOR REMEMBERING IS THEREFORE TO OBSERVE.  When God uttered "Remember," all of the listeners understood it to mean "Observe," AS IF BOTH OF THEM HAD BEEN UTTERED SIMULTANEOUSLY!

 

For Ibn Ezra, then, there is no need to introduce the miraculous as Rashi asks of us, to proclaim that both words had been uttered by God at the same time and astonishingly grasped by the people of Israel.  In fact, there is no need to reconcile both versions of the Decalogue at all, because God only uttered the first and original one!  The second Decalogue, introduced in our Parasha, is Moshe's record of what God had said, but not preserved by him (inaccurately as it were) as some sort of an exact, precise and literal rendering.  Rather, Moshe's intention is only to communicate the message of God's words, and the meaning of His provisions.  When God tells us to remember the Shabbat, He does not ask of us to simply recall it like some latent fact or piece of information, but rather to be aware and mindful of it.  This awareness of Shabbat is not intended as an exercise in abstraction but rather as a means to an end: we remember the Shabbat IN ORDER TO OBSERVE IT AND TO CEASE FROM MELACHA on that day!  That is to say that the fundamental objective of remembering Shabbat is in order to observe it.  And the communication of that truth was obviously God's intent in His original pronouncement.  Moshe's contribution, then, in repeating the Decalogue is not to tell us what God like some sort of a literal record, but rather to bring to the fore additional aspects of those fundamental laws that pertain to their essential meaning.

 

Likewise, when Moshe informs us that the purpose of the Shabbat is to recall the servitude in Egypt and to relieve the slave of his labors, he is not communicating something that is at radical variance with the Divine utterance preserved in Sefer Shemot that focused instead upon God's creation.  Rather, in that earlier version, God had related that all members of the community are to partake of the Shabbat rest, including "you, your son, daughter, servant, maidservant, beast and convert that dwells within your gates" (Shemot 20:9).  But why ought the servant and the maidservant to enjoy the rest of the Shabbat?  The text in Sefer Shemot does not tell us, but

 

Moshe here tells us the REASON (for God's command): when God indicated that the slave ought to rest this was in order that you might recall that you too were a slave in Egypt like him, and God redeemed you from there…Moshe did not have to repeat that God had formed heaven and earth in six days etc., because he prefaced his remarks by saying "as God your Lord commanded you," as if to say that all of these things were included (commentary of Ibn Ezra, with some variations of sequence).

 

For the Ibn Ezra, then, the explanation for the seeming discrepancies between the Decalogue related by Moshe in our parasha and that one preserved in Sefer Shemot is eminently reasonable as well as comprehensive.  Ibn Ezra's explanation succeeds in resolving every one of the divergences, while making no demands upon the student to suspend his logical faculties.  It is because of this that Ibn Ezra is characterized (and characterizes himself) as a "rationalist," not because he disputes the Torah's divinity or else the accuracy of its transmitted text (as perhaps some modern scholars would like to believe) but because he champions the intellect with which God has endowed the human being.

 

Shabbat Shalom