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Word(s) Count: Va’Ethannan

Word(s) Count: Va’Ethannan

Why does Moses alter God’s words? Moses prepares the children of the slaves to enter the Promised Land. He repeats the Ten Commandments, but with changes.

Exodus 5:1-14 is the immediate account of Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 5:6-18 is Moses’ retelling. The first seven verses, 103 words are identical with the exception of one letter. And then deviation upon reaching the Sabbath.The original command begins with the word “Remember” (Zachor) and the second telling with “Observe (Shamor).” After that first word, the two sets are identical for 24 words and then diverges. I note the word count in order to emphasize that any change is purposeful. In the first description of the Sabbath, we are told to imitate God, who as Creator rested on the seventh day, The second telling focuses on God as Redeemer and emphasizes that slaves, too, are to cease from labor on Shabbat.

On Friday night we sing Shlomo Alkabetz’s 16th century composition, Lecha Dodi, which begins, “Shamor v’zachor bi’debur echad”- “Observe and Remember with one utterance.” In this telling, God miraculously spoke both words simultaneously. There is another way to understand Moses’ variation on the Sabbath law. Any change, even the most subtle would be apparent and necessary to justify. Moses our Teacher, as the sages fondly refer to him, chose to emphasize human equality before God. For as Creator, God is the Parent of all people. As Redeemer, God seeks the dignity of each person.The law that slaves are to have a day of rest at the expense of a slave-owner’s income is revolutionary and has implications for our day.

Shabbat is called holy in the creation account (Genesis 2:3). In our daily lives, the Torah asks that we see ourselves as a holy people, both setting aside time to appreciate the majesty of God’s creation and to translate that awe into acts of justice and compassion. “Observe the sabbath day…so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).