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Angela W. Buchdahl
On Guarding & Remembering (Parashat Va-et’chanan)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  August 3, 2012

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va-et’chanan, has many very significant, very important and famous sections in it.  We already talked about it a little bit: you heard that the Sh’ma, the V’ahavta are in this Torah portion.  There’s a huge second discourse that Moses gets to give in this portion, and we also have the Ten Commandments in this Torah portion.


Now some of you who’ve been paying attention would say,  “Didn’t we already have the Ten Commandments, like six months ago?  Back in Exodus?”  And that’s true, we did.


This is sort of the second telling of the Ten Commandments.  And I promise you that the Ten Commandments are still the same, but between Exodus and Deuteronomy, when there is the re-telling of the Ten Commandments, there are just a few words that are slightly different from one version to the next.  And of course, every word means something and so the rabbis really make something of all the differences, and I wanted to share one of them with you tonight.


It is about the commandments to keep the Shabbat.  In Exodus, it says “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” and in Deuteronomy it says “Shamor et Yom HaShabbat.”


Those are fairly familiar words, and you might know some of those Hebrew words.   “Zahor” comes from the same word as “Yizkor” or “Zikaron”—do you know what that word means?   “Remember,” right?  So “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” means “remember the Sabbath.”


In this week’s portion, we have “Shamor,” which also maybe you’ve heard: the word “Shomrim,” those are people who watch over someone after they’ve died, so what is “Shamor?”  Do you know?   “Guard” or “keep” or “protect” or “watch over.”


So we have those two words, and those words also might be familiar to you because we sing them every week.  If I start the phrase, can you finish it?  It goes like this:  “Shamor V’Zachor…B’dibur echad….”  Oh you’re so good!  So where does that come from, what prayer, do you remember?  It comes from L’Cha Dodi, right.


I’m actually going to have you open to that and look at it for a minute.   “Shamor V’Zachor…B’dibur echad….”—what that means is “Shamor”— “guard”— “v’zachor”— “remember”—it’s as if God uttered it in one utterance.  It’s on page 20.


Now the rabbis had a question immediately.  They said,  “Okay, that’s very nice, ‘Shamor V’Zachor,’ we’re trying to figure out why we would have two different words in the two different Ten Commandments.”


So the author of the liturgical poem L’Cha Dodi, which is called a piyut, he said that it’s because God really uttered them almost in one breath: you really can’t have one without the other.  But the rabbis had this question: how come “Shamor” is first in the piyut when in the Torah “Zachor” comes first and “Shamor” comes later?


So here’s one clue: this beautiful piyut was written in the 16th century by a famous mystic named Shlomo Alkabetz.  He was also a Levite.  So one hint might be that if you look, there’s an aesthetic thing that piyut writers love to do, which is to do an acrostic, which means if you take the first letter of each stanza, it spells something.  So what do you see if you look—start with the first stanza: Shin, Lamed, Mem, Het, if you can read Hebrew.  What does that spell, do you know?  Shlomo!  That’s his name!  But Alkabetz would be very cumbersome so he doesn’t spell out his last name on the other stanzas, he spells “the Levite” so he’s “Shlomo HaLevi.”  That’s one reason that you can’t start the verse with “Zachor”, because it doesn’t spell his name very well.


Although, people are not satisfied with that answer, because it seems way too narcissistic for a great mystic to decide to change the order just so that it would spell his name out.  So instead, they offer that “shamor” are commandments that are—and that that word is—associated with nighttime, because when you think about things that you guard, you guard things in the evening when things get dark and they need protection and guarding, and “zachor” are things that you remember when you’re awake during the day.


And in Judaism, a day does not begin when the sun rises up, right?  A day begins when?  When the sun sets, in the evening.  So, we begin Shabbat right now, with evening.  And so we begin with “shamor,” because it is the nighttime, and so we’re going to shamor first and then in the day tomorrow, we’ll zachor.  So that’s one possible understanding for why it’s “Shamor v’zachor.”


Another reason that I think is beautiful is that “shamor” refers to all the commandments around Shabbat that you have to guard against, meaning all the negative commandments.  So in order to guard against injunctions against Shabbat, there are things you are not allowed to do, like don’t like a fire, don’t do work, don’t carry on Shabbat.


So “shamor” refers to all the negative commandments, and “zachor” refers to all the positive commandments, all the things that help you remember, like lighting the candles, sanctifying the wine, taking a rest.  So both of those commandments come together.


My husband and I, a couple of years ago, we decided we wanted to shamor and v’zachor the Sabbath a little more deliberately.  And actually, our inspiration was a confirmation retreat that Rabbi Rubinstein was leading two years ago.


He does this very amazing program where the tenth graders are all seated in a circle, and we have beautiful services together, and he invites them to really think about the masks that they wear, and things that they hide behind.


And one of the things that I was so struck by, and pained by, was how much our teenagers said that they hide behind technology.  That one of the greatest masks they wear is hiding behind their devices.  They said,  “Oh, well when I’m with my friends we don’t really talk to each other, we text the friends that we’re not with, and then when we’re with those friends, they’re actually texting the friends I was with before, so I know they’re not talking to each other either.”  And people talk about how “I make all my biggest announcements on Facebook because I don’t know how to say them otherwise.”


It was very hard to listen to that, and that very same weekend, there was a New York Times front-page article about some of the real issues around teenagers and technology.  So we saw that as a sign, and we decided that we would shamor against this for our children.


Our oldest child at that point was only ten; he was not yet texting.  He couldn’t complain yet.  So we thought if we guarded against it beforehand, we could do something.  But we couldn’t just tell our children they couldn’t use them: we had to do it, too.  Which was also quite interesting because it’s not that we hadn’t had our own fights about using the Blackberry at dinnertime or on vacation and so we decided we were going to shamor and go totally unplugged on Shabbat.  No computers, no TV, no Blackberry, no phones.


And it wasn’t all easy, and there have been occasionally times that we’ve cheated, but most of the time, it has actually transformed our family’s life.  And it has not only changed the way our Shabbat feels, but it has actually changed the way we relate to each other, think about time, and think about our Jewish identifies.


So, we started by starting to shamor, to guard against something and to try to preserve something.  And what ended up happening was also that we were able to remember.  To remember why the Sabbath was one of the greatest inventions our people ever came up with.  To remember why we’re Jews, to remember that life is not just about achieving and working and climbing, that life is really just about being, and having sometimes moments just to be, and to be with each other.


It reminded me of a famous quote from Ahad HaAm, who was a pre-State Zionist thinker who said “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”


So Shamor V’Zachor…B’dibur echad…., keep and remember the Sabbath: they are heard as one utterance, and together, they have the power to transform us.

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