Deuteronomy Shabbat and the Persistence of Slavery
Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:27-7:11)
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin
Nearly seventy years after its publication, Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, The Invisible Man, continues to resonate with our nation’s continued experience of race, violence, and blindness. The horrifying scene of white cop murdering an unarmed black man, Brother Tod Clifton, finds echoes in too many American places, as does the almost perverse refusal to see the ongoing effects of slavery and oppression, including the benefits that continue to accrue to the descendants—in the broadest sense of the term—of the oppressors.
In Ellison’s account, this blindness has two aspects, the moral and the historical. Paraphrasing William Faulkner, he writes that “what is commonly assumed to be past history is actually…part of the living present. Furtive, implacable and tricky, it inspirits both the observer and the scene observed…and it speaks even when no one wills to listen.” This willful historical blindness enables what he calls the “feigned moral blindness” of most American whites, allowing them to ignore ongoing discrimination and violence by assigning slavery and its effects to “past history.”
This tendency towards moral and historical blindness that Ellison identifies in The Invisible Man is certainly not limited to his era. Indeed, we witness a numbing profusion of contemporary examples in our newspapers and on social media, with the effect that we can become exhausted and even begin to welcome the false comfort of historical and moral blindness. The Torah is also aware of this danger, most notably in the repeated injunction not to forget that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt as a basis for pursuing justice for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
One such injunction occurs in Parashat Va’etchanan, in the repetition of the Ten Commandments, which occurs at a moment when the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land, when the Exodus will soon enter into history as the legacy of a generation that has passed away. There is a danger, the Torah seems to understand, that the past will die and that history will be forgotten.
As Moses gathers the new generation of Israelites to review the revelation at Sinai, he admonishes them:
The Eternal our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. (Deut. 5:2-3)
Commentators, both traditional and modern, hasten to assure us that Moses’ exclusion of ancestors is not literal, but elliptical. The medieval commentator Rashi, for instance, reads the phrase “not with our ancestors” as “not with them alone.” His reading renders this passage consistent with the one later in the book that states:
I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and with those who are not with us here this day (Deut. 29:13-14)
Moses’ insistence that God made the covenant with the current generation points to the radical implications of these passages: revelation is a transhistorical reality and the covenant is renewed in every generation, indeed every time we strive as Jews to follow God’s commandments and thus to encounter God’s presence. This capacity for renewal leads to the rabbinic understanding that the soul of every Jew was present at Sinai.
Yet Rashi’s gloss on Deut 3:2-3 reminds us that revelation—and the covenant it engenders—was also a historical event: it happened at a particular moment and thus we are enjoined throughout the Torah to remember it. As both transhistorical reality and historical event, it becomes like Faulkner’s idea of history: in the past but never past, forever popping up, often at times when it might feel more convenient to forget it.
One of those times, perhaps, would be the fourth commandment, which is the only one of the ten to undergo substantial revision in Deuteronomy:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Eternal your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day. (Deut. 5:12-15)
In the book of Exodus, the first word of this commandment is “remember” (zakhor), and Moses couches observance of the Sabbath as an imitation of God, who rested on the seventh day after the six days of creation. In Deuteronomy, the command is to “observe” (or to “guard”—shamor), and the focus shifts from creation to redemption. Rashi, following rabbinic legend, suggests that God actually spoke the two words simultaneously, as part of a single utterance. Be that as it may, the fact is that both words appear in Deuteronomy: we must observe the Sabbath but also remember that each one of us (the verb here is in the singular) was a slave in Egypt and that God redeemed us from there. The injunction to observe does not replace so much as augment the injunction to remember.
Furthermore, the phrase “so that your male and female slave may rest as you do” does not appear in Exodus, the jarring implication here being that we, those who are commanded to observe the Sabbath, will likely own slaves. And as the experience of our own experience of slavery and subsequent liberation fades into “past history,” we will tend to forget it, which may tempt us to turn a blind eye to the oppression—especially our oppression—of others. We must, unlike Pharaoh, know that those who serve us are humans and treat them the way we treat the rest of our household: as entitled to rest on Shabbat as the rest of us.
Of course the vast majority of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, abhor the idea of slavery and strive to treat all people with the highest ethical standards; despite the reality that slavery in many forms still exists in our world, most of us do not participate directly in the oppression of others. For that reason, we must not take the notion of “owning slaves” literally, lest we dismiss it as yet another biblical idea that belongs safely in the past and thus has no relevance to our lives. Just as many Jews have internalized the admonition not to forget that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt, we should also not forget that we, as it were, “had slaves,” which is to say that we have likely benefited from the oppression of others, even if we did not participate in that oppression and even if we might prefer to turn a blind eye to that inconvenient truth. As Ellison and countless others before and after him have affirmed, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still loom over our national life in ways that too many of us wish to ignore. We must acknowledge and struggle with that reality and do all that we can to end that oppression.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.