This week, we will be reading in Synagogue, Deuteronomy chapter 5; famous because it contains the second version of the ten commandments.
That there are two versions is well known. That they are different is also well known. The commandment about Shabbat varies in its first word. Zachor – remember the Sabbath day is what is told in the book of Exodus; Shamor – keep the Sabbath day is what is found here. The difference gives rise to the idea that on Mount Sinaii God enacted the extraordinary feat of speaking both versions simultaneously, while Moses managed the even more extraordinary feat to distinguish between the two versions and write them both down correctly. The story is encapsulated in the first verse of Lecha Dodi - that we sing on Friday night.
Shamor vezachor bedibbur echad –
‘Observe! Remember! –
one command, God made us hear a single phrase.
For God is One and known as One,
in fame, in glory and in praise.’
The hymn extends the idea of God’s unity to the very words God speaks. There can be no division, no difference no change. All is one; part of God’s unity and it is only in our fractured world that the words must be separated and the ideas divided in order that we can make sense of them.
It is a powerful idea, though one that is very difficult to grasp – and one, we could argue that is the Jewish equivalent of the equally difficult Christian trinity. From this idea, that everything about God is One – including God’s way of speaking - we can understand the notion that everything was given on Mount Sinaii. Everything – not just the Torah, but all Jewish learning from all times and from everywhere. From the unified speech of God on Sinaii, we take as we need those bits of revelation that are most necessary and most pertinent to us at any given time. This you could argue is the holistic approach.
A more linear, approach is to look at the events as they occur and in the context of the unfurling of the Jewish story. Moses went up Mount Sinaii, and received the ten commandments. He went up and down and up and down several times receiving more and more laws, - breaking them, rewriting them adding to them as the situation demanded. Then the people moved on. After forty years of extraordinary experience living as nomads in a hostile environment, they reach their goal – a land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ The danger is very real that they, in the comfort of a settled and easy life will forget the lessons learned on the hard road of exile.
So Moses reminds them and in so doing brings a new interpretation to bear on the original words. Zachor – remember is quite a passive command. ; Shamor – keep requires action. Forty years on and a new generation, one cannot rely just on memory to keep the story alive, one needs a ritual to support the memory. A ritual and a reason. Moses explains the Shabbat command differently here from the way it was explained on Mount Sinaii. There the reason for Shabbat was in imitation of God resting after the act of creation. Here, the reason, to enable slaves to rest because we ourselves were slaves, brings home the recent history in a way that people can identify and relate to. The first is theological, the second more popular in that it is one with which all the people can identify.
As religion develops, you need both – the theological underpinning and the popular understanding. We cannot take just one set of the ten commandments and say that is the definitive one. The Deuteronomy version may build on the Exodus version but it does not replace it. While it is usual to say that the first understanding – the ‘holistic’ understanding describes the Orthodox attitude to revelation, while the historical understanding reflects that of Reform, in reality, they are not so different. Both need Torah in its totality, both need the centuries of interpretation and understanding to which it has been subject. Ultimately, we are all looking at Torah and admiring and appreciating the many complexities and nuances; recognising that wherever we are, and whatever our perspective, we will never get to the bottom of this amazing work. Realising, that without it, our lives would be so much the poorer.
Sybil A. Sheridan