Parashat Vaetchannan 5779

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – 16 August 2019

Reflecting on the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma

Some of the most interesting of the weekly Torah portions come up in the summer when a lot of people are on holiday. This week’s parashah, Va-etchannan is a case in point. It includes both the Ten Commandments – known in Hebrew as aseret ha-dibbrot, ‘the ten utterances’ (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) – and the Sh’ma (Deut. 6: 4-9).

Actually, the text of ‘the ten utterances’ in Va-etchannan is one of two versions. The other one is found in the account of the Revelation at Mount Sinai in parashat Yitro, Exodus chapter 20. Comparing the two passages is illuminating because they are not identical. For example, the Shabbat commandment begins, Zachor – ‘Remember’ – in Exodus, while in Deuteronomy it opens with the word, Shamor – ‘Keep’. The rationale given for Shabbat is also quite different. In Exodus (20:8-11): ‘For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and then rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Eternal blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it’ (20:11). In Deuteronomy (5:12-15): ‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ (5:15).

From the point of view of tradition, the notion of two differing versions of one singular Revelation is incomprehensible – which is why in the 16th century Shabbat poem, L’cha Dodi, the first verse begins: Shamor v’Zachor b’dibbur echad – ‘”Remember’ and “Keep” in one utterance’. Interestingly, the mediaeval Spanish biblical commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-c. 1167), took a more rationalistic approach. For ibn Ezra, the variations between the two texts were a direct consequence of the imperfect process of oral transmission. Further, when Moses presented God’s words to the people on the edge of the Jordan at the end of their forty-year journey, he addressed those who had not experienced the Exodus – hence the need to ‘remember that you were a slave in Egypt.’ The modern text critical approach to the Torah adopted by Liberal Judaism is also rooted in rationalism – and in the understanding that the Torah is a human rather than divine document. From this perspective, while the Book of Exodus includes material that spans 1000 to 800 BCE, it emerged as a Book in the 5th century BCE following the Babylonian exile – that is, later than the Book of Deuteronomy composed during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (c.649-609 BCE), a reforming monarch who was determined to bring his backsliding people back to the path of righteousness.

Unlike ‘the ten utterances’, the Sh’ma only appears in parashat Va-etchannan. Most Jews are familiar with the passage because it is included in both evening and morning services – and also, some of us grew up reciting the Sh’ma with a parent when we went to bed at night. However, there is more to the Sh’ma than many Liberal Jews are aware. According to traditional liturgy, two further Torah passages are part of the Sh’ma: Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. The reason why Liberal Jews may be less familiar with them is because, apart from the concluding verses of the Numbers paragraph, they did not appear in any Liberal prayer book until Siddur Lev Chadash, published in 1995 – and in Siddur Lev Chadash, the passages aren’t included in the evening and morning services, but rather elsewhere in the prayer book (pp. 539-541), in the section headed, ‘Prayers for various occasions’.

One of the main reasons for the exclusion of a traditional liturgical text from a Liberal Judaism prayer book is that it expresses something that doesn’t accord with Liberal Judaism theology or values – for example, prayers for the restoration of sacrificial worship. So, what is unacceptable about the two additional paragraphs of the Sh’ma? Deuteronomy 11:13-21 is problematic because it expresses the theology of reward and punishment: If Israel keeps the commandments, the land will be blessed with rain in due season and there will be prosperity; if Israel worships other gods, God will seal the heavens ‘so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…’ (11:17). Numbers 15:37-41, however, is rather different. The focus of the passage is on the commandment to the Israelites to wear tzitzit, ‘fringes’ on the corners of their garments. While the second paragraph of the Sh’ma sets out ‘the small print’ of the covenant with God and also repeats, albeit in the plural, the references to ‘binding’ God’s words and ‘writing’ them on the ‘doorposts’, the third paragraph mentions another ritual designed to remind us of God’s words: the ‘fringes’. So, why is it okay for Liberal Jews to be made aware of tefillin and mezuzah, but not tzitzit? After all, all three of them are ritual practices.

Currently, we are in the process of creating a new prayer book, Siddur Shirah Chadashah. Those who have seen the first draft of the Shabbat morning service, will know that in addition to a new translation of the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, we have also included a passage by Rabbi David Cooper that begins, ‘Watch yourselves that you do not become seduced by a desire to dominate and possess, destroying the work of Creation.’ This passage is a creative reworking of the second and third paragraphs of the Sh’ma in which the biblical theology of reward and punishment has been transformed to express our responsibility as guardians of the Earth. As we face the challenges of climate change in the 21st-century, surely, Liberal Jews can read these words with complete integrity.

The changing treatment of the Sh’ma in the prayer books of Liberal Judaism reveals the journey of our movement since its birth at the dawn of the 20th century. It also reflects Liberal Judaism’s guiding impulse so succinctly expressed by Lily Montagu in 1899: ‘to satisfy the needs of the age’ (‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today’, Jewish Quarterly Review).

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