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You and I Can Change the World 

12 August 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we read the Torah portion Vaetchanan. In its centre is the most recognisable text in the Western world – the Ten Commandments.

Many of you will know that it is the second time that the Ten Commandments have been written in the Torah. The first appearance is in chapter 20 of the book of Exodus. Some people assume that Chapter 5 of the book of Deuteronomy is a direct repetition of the earlier version, but it is not the case. The Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy are slightly different from those of Exodus.

Because of these differences, the laws of Shabbat are debated among Jewish scholars. The Torah gives us two different reasons for Shabbat. In Exodus 20:11 it is said: ‘For in six days The Eternal One made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, The Eternal One blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’

We find a different reason in Deuteronomy 5:14-15:

‘The seventh day is a sabbath to The Eternal One your God. On it, you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that The Eternal One your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, The Eternal One your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.’

In Exodus, the Shabbat exists to remind us of the creation of the world. In Deuteronomy, the Shabbat exists to remind us that we were slaves.

One might think that Shabbat is a natural phenomenon and people observe the day of rest as an organic cycle of the world’s system. However, the book of Deuteronomy connects the idea of Shabbat with freedom and human responsibility to remember it. Jewish scholars combined two ideas and said that they both must be important.

Therefore, Shabbat is a reminder that sometimes people must fight their natural instincts and make a deliberate change in the order of nature. The world's natural order gives essential potential to all, but the work must be done to fulfil it. To achieve freedom, we must be proactive and sometimes go against natural human instincts.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel develops this idea further. He suggests it is natural for a human being to depend on other people and material possessions. This dependency, however, may result in inner slavery, weakness, and idolatry. In his book ‘Shabbat’ he reflects on the notion of inner freedom and the task of liberating ourselves from internal slavery:

‘Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, [people] must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.

In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In its beginning and end, the Decalogue deals with the liberty of [people]. The first Word—I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage— reminds [us] that [our] outer liberty was given to [us] by God, and the tenth Word—Thou shalt not covet!—reminds [us] that [we ourselves] must achieve [our] inner liberty’ (Heschel, The Sabbathpp. 89-90)

We live in a time of many uncertainties and challenges. As we approach this Shabbat, may it be a reminder that we do not always have to follow the natural order. We have the power, potential and responsibility to make this world better, not simply accept it as it is.

Shabbat Shalom, 


Fri, 19 August 2022 22 Av 5782