I’m sure you’re wondering who came up with the idea for a weekend, the idea that there should be a day off during the week, and well, that would be the um, God, for the Jews, so all together now, “You’re welcome.”
What else is Shabbat but a decreed day off? And who gets days off, but a free people who can decide to do so. When you’re enslaved, you have no control over your own time, but free people have that control. This week’s parasha, V’etchanan, re-states the Ten Commandments, (or better translated, Ten Utterances), and way up at #4 is the Sabbath.
This is supposed to be a repetition of the Big Ten. They first appeared back in Exodus, at the foot of Mt. Sinai. And in true Deuteronomy fashion, it’s not an exact repetition. In Exodus, we’re told to “remember” the Sabbath (“Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” (Ex. 20:8). Here in Deuteronomy, we’re told to “guard” or “observe” the Sabbath with a new phrase tacked on: “as the Almighty your God has commanded you” (Deut. 5:11)
And there’s another difference. In Exodus, the reason for remembering the Sabbath was Creation: “For in six days God made the heavens and the earth….and rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the Shabbat day, and sanctified it” (Ex. 20:10) In this week’s parasha, we’re told that the reason for guarding the Sabbath day is all to do with the fact that God liberated the slaves in Egypt, bringing them (us) out, and therefore God commanded them (us) to observe Shabbat. What to make of the difference? Is it a difference without distinction, or is there something behind the two words, “remember” (zachor) and “observe/guard” (shamor)?
The first version tells us to remember. Memory is a cerebral thing. Memories can creep unbidden into our heads at any time. They can zip through our minds for a short time, and gone again. But without doing something about that memory, it will fade away.There is a lot in our brains, competing for our attention, especially our memories. The important ones, we take the time to commemorate (see what I did there? Connected words, memory and commemorate?). We do something…light a candle, sing a song, frame a picture, use a special platter, do something different. Memory without action is only half the idea.
The second version tells us to guard or observe the Sabbath Day because God told us to. Here we become more physical than cerebral…these are action-words. But doing things just because we’re told to is only half the equation, also. We have to match the memory with the action, or the actions become empty vessels, too easily cracked and broken, and tossed aside. The rituals remind us of the memories; the memories compel us to keep them alive with rituals.
At the base of the mountain, why would a beaten-down group of ex-slaves, who could barely see past their own painful experiences and narrow rescue, be told to remember Shabbat? Because there is a world bigger than them, a beautiful universe created by God, and now with their freedom, it’s crucial to know that they are made in God’s image, to be valued. And that means, every creature gets to rest. In this week’s parasha, as they stood at the entrance to the Land after all that wandering, they are no longer slaves, but a hardened group. They are charged with creating a new society according to the many rules they’ve been hearing all that time. The work to be done will be done by their own hands, not God’s. They must guard Shabbat to make sure God is part of that new society. It’s not all about God and divine creation in a universal sense. It’s about real life on the ground, and the God whose presence after Creation made it all possible.
Zachor v’shamor. Remember and observe. Memory and action. We need both, for we are both Divinely created and live a human existence. How will you “actively rest” this Shabbat? What will you do to “make” Shabbat different from the other days?