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In this week's parsha, the Jewish people commit the worst sin possible - worshiping a false god - right after God gives them the Torah on Mt. Sinai. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman asks us about a bizarre question that Moshe asks God, "Why, God, should you be angry at your people?" and reminds us that God and the nation of Israel are attached by destiny.
Every once in a while you read through a biblical text and you can’t help the feeling that this is too repetitive, I mean why am I listening to this, it is just we are saying the same thing over and over again and maybe there is no greater example of this then a little section of text this which is actually quite famous in this week’s Parsha, the section of text that talks about Sabbath.
The reason that it is famous is that we actually use it for the text of Kiddish on a Sabbath afternoon. So you have kind of heard this over and over but have you ever actually bothered thinking about the words, you notice that it is just seems really, really repetitive. Let me give you an example, verse 13, ach et-shabtotai tishmoru, God says. ‘Make sure to keep my Sabbaths’, ki ot hi beini uveineichem, ‘because it is a sign between me and you’, ledoroteichem, ‘for generations’, ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem, ‘to teach you that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’. Ushmartem et-haShabbat, ‘you must keep the Sabbath’, kodesh hi lachem, ‘its holy’, mechaleleiha mot yumat ki kol-ha’oseh vah melachah venichretah hanefesh hahi mikerev ameiha, ‘those who desecrate the Sabbath, it’s a capital crime’. Sheshet yamim ye’aseh melachah, ‘you should do work for six days’, uvayom hashvi’i Shabbat Shabbaton, ‘and on the 7th day you should rest’, kodesh l’Hashem, ‘it’s holy to God’, melachah beyom haShabbat mot yumat, ‘anybody who doesn’t work, it is a capital crime’. Veshamru veney-Yisrael et-haShabbat, ‘and Israel has to keep the Sabbath’, la’asot et-haShabbat, ‘to do the Sabbath’, ledorotam berit olam, ‘it’s a covenant forever’, beini uvein benei Yisrael, ‘a covenant between me and between Israel’, ot hi le’olam, ‘it’s a sign between me and you’, ki sheshet yamim asah Hashem et-hashamayim ve’et-ha’aretz, ‘because it teaches that God made the world in six days and on the 7th day, he rested’.
And so you listen to this and it is like everything just keeps on getting repeated, I mean how many times do I have to hear this, it is a sign, between me and you, it’s for generations, you have to keep the Sabbath, it’s holy, what’s going on here, why is the Torah being so rebus?
So I want to suggest to you that whenever you come across a text like this, you need to consider the possibility that you might just be looking at a chiastic structure, atbash structure, and I think that’s what going on over here. I’ve talked about atbash structure other times in these Parshat videos. A good introduction to it is given in last year’s Parshat Vayera video, you can take a look at that if you like. But basically atbash is an ABC-CBA structure, structure where the first element is mirrored by the last element. Second to first gets mirrored by second to last. Third to first gets mirrored by third to last until all the ideas in a passage are kind of converging towards the center. a chiastic structure, an atbash structure, is interesting because it defines a center of an area, a kind of center of gravity around which all the idea is kind of coalesce but it is also interesting in another respect. It is interesting because the pairs on the way towards the center kind of line up with each other. The first element pairs of with the last element, second to first pairs of with second to last. So there’s meaning to be found in this similarity in contrast in the pairs. I want to explore this with you what I think is a fascinating chiasm within this Sabbath text that we know so well.
First, I want to read through this and try to identify the structure itself and then we will try to figure out what it might be telling us. Okay, let’s start from verse 13, speak to the Israelites and tell them keep my Sabbath. We are going to see that as the introductory verse. Everything that happens next is going to explain that verse. Ki ot hi means ‘because it is a sign’. Now look at the end of the text, can you find the idea, oti again? Yup, there it is. Verse 17, ot hi le’olam, ‘it’s a sign forever’. Okay, so we are going to call element 1 in this chiasm ot hi, ‘it’s a sign’.
Let’s go to element 2, who is it a sign between? Beini uveineichem, the top of the chiasm tells us. What about the bottom of the chiasm? Right before ot hi what do you have? Beini uvein benei Yisrael, ‘it’s a sign between me and the people of Israel’. So element 2, between me and you, between me and Israel.
Element 3, how long should a sign last? Ledoroteichem, ‘for all of your generations’. Bottom of the chiasm now, ledorotam berit olam, ‘for all of their generations’, a covenant forever. So element 3, ‘forever’.
Let’s go now to the bottom of the chiasm. What do we have before oti, before beini uvein benei Yisrael, before ledorotam berit olam? Veshamru veney-Yisrael et-haShabbat, ‘Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath’. Do we have anything like that at the top of the chiasm? We do – Ushmartem et-haShabbat, ‘Keep the Sabbath’. So element 4, a command to keep the Sabbath.
Now I just want to point out that there’s seems to be a phrase here which is actually outside of the chiastic structure that doesn’t seem to fit. It’s these words at the top of the chiasm, ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem, ‘to know that I, the lord the one, who made you holy’. So that appears at the top over here but it does not seem to really have an analog in the bottom of the chiasm. There’s no room for anything that’s parallel to ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem. So we will come back to that and talk about this phrase that we seem to be dangling, that doesn’t seem to be part of the structure.
But in the meantime, let’s continue, we have four elements, can we find a 5th? And there does appear to be a 5th, element 5 centers on the holiness of Sabbath and therefore the consequences for its violation, look at the top, ki kodesh hi lachem, ‘the Sabbath is holy’ and therefore, mechaleleiha mot yumat ki kol-ha’oseh vah melachah venichretah hanefesh hahi mikerev ameiha, ‘because the Sabbath is holy, it’s a capital crime to violate it and anybody who violates it his soul would be cut off from amongst his people’. Look at where that gets mirrored, at the bottom of the chiasm. Again the idea of holiness. Kodesh l’Hashem, ‘the Sabbath is holy to God’ and therefore the consequences for its violation, kol-ha’oseh melachah beyom haShabbat mot yumat, ‘anybody who violates it, it’s a capital crime’. That’s element 5, holiness of the Sabbath and consequences for its violation.
And now, we get to the center. The 6th and final element. Oh, isn’t that interesting? Sheshet yamim ye’aseh melachah, ‘for 6 days you should do work’, the 6th element is the 6 days of creation. Including the center there are 6 elements on each side of this chiastic structure. It is almost as if there is one for each day. But now, read carefully, the center is really a two part center. Sheshet yamim ye’aseh melachah, ‘6 days shall you do work, uvayom hashvi’i, ‘but on the 7th day’, Shabbat Shabbaton, ‘it’s a holy day’, a day of rest. The two parts of the center will take you from 6 to 7. The culmination of the chiasm. A 6 part chiasm with the 7th part layered into the 6.
So that’s the structure. Let’s talk a little bit about what meaning we might glean from the structure. Let’s talk about all that seeming repetition we saw before. If you look carefully it’s not quite repetition. It’s different angle on same ideas. Let’s see if we can define the angel. What sort of perspective we are getting in the first half of the chiasm and how does it differ from the perspective that we are getting in the second half. Listen to the subtle change in the phraseology between the first and the second halves.
In the first half, ot hi beini uveineichem, it’s a sign between me and you and in the second half, ot hi beini uvein benei Yisrael, ‘a sign between me and the children of Israel’, what is the difference? The difference is we are going from second person to third person. The first part of the chiasm directed towards you. God is talking to you and in the next part of the chiasm, God is not talking to you, he is talking about you in third person. As if God is speaking about you but he is speaking to himself. Continue in the chiasm, you will see the same pattern continue to repeat itself. First part of the chiasm, how long should the sign last? It should last ledoroteichem, ‘for all of your generations’. Second person, directly to you, God is speaking to you. Not so in the latter half of the chiasm. How long should it last? Ledorotam, ‘for all of their generations,’ berit olam, ‘a covenant forever’. Notice how a covenant forever only appears in the bottom of the chiasm and not at the top of the chiasm. So as if almost the top of the chiasm is relating to Sabbath from the perspective of the people of Israel. God is speaking to them directly about it, what is it mean to you? It means to you that you are going to keep on doing this for all of your generations, we don’t know from forever, we know about our generations. God knows about forever, God speaking about it from his own perspective, says yeah, it is going to be for all of their generations, timeless. God is the timeless one. God is the one who projects the Sabbath into infinity. Keep on going to the 4th element, ushmartem et-haShabbat, ‘you shall keep the Sabbath’, a direct command to you. On the other side of the chiasm, veshamru veney-Yisrael et-haShabbat, ‘the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath’. Talking about you. Go now to the 5th element of the chiasm. You see the pattern there again. What does Sabbath mean for the people of Israel? Kodesh hi lachem, ‘it’s holy, for you’. Contrast that to the bottom half of the chiasm. Kodesh l’Hashem, ‘it’s holy for God’. From God’s perspective it is holy.
There are two ways to relate to the holiness of Sabbath. If I relate to it in terms of its holy for me, well, there are consequences for that. The consequences for that is not just that it is a capital crime, venichretah hanefesh hahi mikerev ameiha, if we are speaking about this from the perspective of the people of Israel, anyone who doesn’t keep the Sabbath is cut off from the people of Israel. That’s our perspective on all these. From God’s perspective that’s not there, that’s absent. The kodesh l’Hashem piece at the bottom of the chiasm leaves out mention of the spiritual excision of anyone who doesn’t keep the Sabbath from the people of Israel.
And now, let’s take a look at one last little piece of this which continues this pattern. It relates to the center of the chiasm itself. The interesting thing about the center of the chiasm is it doesn’t have a pair, all the other elements get paired off, you can sort of see one element almost as commenting on the other but there is nothing commenting on the center. The center is all alone, it doesn’t have a pair, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes when you look at chiastic structure, if you look carefully, you will find that the center actually does have a pair, as a matter of fact it has two pairs. Somewhere at the edges of chiasm there are two elements that pair off against the center. One at the top, one at the bottom. I think that’s the case here. Those pairs are actually the missing pieces of the text that didn’t fit into the original chiasm. The parts that don’t fit, are the pairs to the center. The parts that don’t fit were the Torah’s way of explaining what the meaning of the sign was. Ot hi beini uveineicha, top of the chiasm, it is a sign between me and you, for what purpose?
Here is the purpose and this was the part that was left out of the chiasm: ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem so that you should know that I am the God who makes you holy. Now go to the bottom of the chiasm, what was the sign there, beini uvein benei Yisrael ot hi le’olam, it was a sign for what purpose? Ki sheshet yamim asah Hashem et-hashamayim ve’et-ha’aretz, that in 6 days God created the heavens and the earth and on the 7th, he rested. The sign has two meanings. It has a meaning with reference to us and a meaning with reference to God. The top of the chiasm is all about us.
What does the Sabbath mean for us? For us, it says that God made us a holy nation. God selected Israel to be a holy nation to him. The Sabbath, the fact that Israel was chosen to keep the Sabbath is evidence of that. But the sign means something to God too. The sign of the Sabbath is a sign that says something about God. Ki sheshet yamim asah Hashem et-hashamayim ve’et-ha’aretz, bottom of the chiasm, in 6 days God made the heavens and the earths but on the 7th, he rested. He was the master, the master who created and the master who rested. Why do I say that these are the pairs that connect to the center? Think about the center, sheshet yamim ye’aseh melachah, 6 days shall you do work but on the 7th day, you shall rest. The center is the command to work for 6 days and to rest on the 7th. How do you get that command, what’s the rational for that command? Or to put it another way, what does that command show?
That command is a sign. It shows two things, two things that must go together. One thing it shows, is that God has sanctified the people of Israel. The second thing it shows is that God is master and the creator. When you put those two things together, you get a command addressed to Israel, to keep the Sabbath. If God had only sanctified Israel but didn’t regard himself as master and creator, there would be no command to work for 6 days and rest on the 7th. There will be no rational for it and likewise had God been master and creator but not sanctified a particular nation, then there would be no reason for any particular nation to keep the Sabbath. It’s the conjunction of both of them that leads to a command to Israel to keep the Sabbath. A command that is evidence of the holiness of the nation and the uniqueness of the master and creator whose existence they testified to, every time they keep the Sabbath day.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Yaakov's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
13. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
14. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
15. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
16. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
17. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
18. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
19. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
20. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
21. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
22. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
23. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
24. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
25. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
26. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
27. Metzora: Living Within the Community
28. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
29. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
30. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
31. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
32. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
33. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
34. Naso: A Guide For...Parenting?
35. Behaalotecha: A Guide For...Parenting? Part II
36. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
37. Korach: Can We Influence God?
38. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
39. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
40. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
41. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
42. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
43. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
44. Part I: Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?
45. Part II: Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person? (Premium)
46. Re'eh: Jewish Slavery
47. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
48. Shoftim: Epilogue 1 (Premium)
49. Shoftim: Epilogue 2 (Premium)
50. Ki Teitzei: Question
51. Ki Teitzei: Answer
52. Ki Tavo: Question
53. Ki Tavo: Answer
54. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
55. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
56. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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