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Parashat Va-etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11)

“You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,
and God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand.’” (Deuteronomy 6:21)

Parashat Va-etchanan includes both the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel…), making it the summer “blockbuster” of weekly parashot (plural of parasha, or portion). This presentation of the commandments varies slightly from the Exodus version; the reasons for observing Shabbat (the fourth commandment) are the most noticeable differences. In Exodus, the reason is emulating God’s cessation of labor after six days of creation (Ex. 20:11). In Va-etchanan, it is to remember God’s deliverance from the experience of slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15).

According to rabbinic lore, in Exodus, Moses convinces Pharoah a weekly day of rest will make the Israelite slaves more productive and efficient. Pharaoh agrees and Moses selects Shabbat as the day off (Sh’mot Rabah 1:32). Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski (1930-; an American chassidic rabbi, and a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse) notes this idea of Shabbat as a day of rest is a secular notion. It positions Shabbat instrumentally, as a means to an end (refresh and recharge to return to work). But God does not need a Shabbat afternoon nap and Shabbat is not merely a remedy for fatigue. Twerski says this is why Va-etchanan includes the word la-asot et yom hashabat, to make the Sabbath day (Deut. 5:15). Shabbat is a day to make yourself anew, to refine yourself spiritually.

Exodus implies Shabbat is about the absence of work, which, for slaves, might have been enough. Deuteronomy asserts freedom brings with it the obligation to use Shabbat creatively. It distinguishes between the work of the week, from which we abstain (and without which, there could be no Shabbat), and the work of Shabbat, with which we engage.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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