Parshat Va’etchanan: When less is more

“It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (Devarim 5:3).

The summer after I graduated high school, a long time ago now in 1993, was the summer of Lollapalooza. Music was at the center of my life, both playing it and listening to it, and my excitement for the music festival of the year in Orlando was off the charts. 

I was not disappointed. The volume and intensity of the music, the amount of people, the energy, the lights; it was all intoxicating. The fact that over 100,000 people were all experiencing this together as one huddled mass made it all the more electric. The day was so impactful that I walked away a different person than I had entered.

So lehavdil, when Moshe tries to capture the experience of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the only thing I have in my own set of experiences to compare it with in any way is Lollapalooza. The energy, the awe, the power, the fire and smoke that emanated from the mountain, and then of course, the voice. The voice of the Divine. The imprint of that experience, the meeting of the human and the Divine en mass, must have penetrated their very being.

But what about the next generation? What about the children who were there, or those who never even experienced it? Were their parents able to articulate the experience for them? Did the story of the parents’ experience penetrate the hearts of their children to their core? 

Seemingly the answer is no; telling the story of a life-altering event, though moving for the listener, is not the same as experiencing the event itself. So before Moshe passes on the reins of leadership, he gives the nation a mixture of rebuke, encouragement, and fair warning. But he knows that these words won’t be enough; he wants to offer them something of the experience of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. True, he cannot offer the light show, and he can’t offer the voice of the Divine. But he can offer them the brit, the covenant, the unbreakable relationship between God and Am Yisrael. 

“It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (Devarim 5:3).

Moshe is telling them: the brit that was made between God and your mothers and fathers who stood at Mt. Sinai is as equally alive and present with you as it was with them. Though there is no smoke and fire, the essential part of the brit, God’s simple presence, is available. And like with every relationship, that presence demands behavior consistent with the importance and seriousness of the relationship. So Moshe re-transmits the 10 commandments to the nation, conveying the heart of the experience at Mt. Sinai: the outline of their relationship. 

However, as Moshe re-tells the 10 commandments, there is a problem that the close reader will quickly uncover. There are differences in how they were recorded in the Book of Shemot and how Moshe is telling them now. 

There are many answers that the commentators give for these changes; but whether we say that one reflects the first tablets, and one the second, or that Moshe is giving a new, expanded expression of these laws, one point is consistent: Moshe is offering something new in his telling. Remember what we said last week: everything in the Book of Devarim comes to add.

Now you may be familiar with the most famous difference between the two tellings: in Shemot, we are told zachor, remember, the day of Shabbat. But here in Devarim we are told shamor, keep the Shabbat day. Our sages teach us that the first is in reference to the positive mitzvot of Shabbat, and that the latter is in reference to the negative mitzvot of Shabbat. That works very well with our principle. 

But the story gets a bit more complicated. There are several places where the text in Devarim is missing something when we compare it to the text in Shemot. Here is an example:

“Do not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth (ibid 5:8).

Yet if we look at the text in Shemot, it reads, “Do not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness…. (Shemot 20,4).

The difference is the ‘or,” in Hebrew only a vav, one little letter. Yet the vav is not recorded here in Devarim. Remember, if a Torah is missing only one letter, it is not considered a Sefer Torah. So for those who take every letter seriously, this is an important issue. 

The Maharal explains the following, and it’s a bit technical, so hear me out: the subtraction of the vav is actually an addition. How? In Shemot, where it is written with a vav, it is considered one clause and one warning, but in Devarim, it is a warning against two different issues. In Shemot, we are warned against making an idol based on any image. In Devarim, we are warned against any idol, and in addition, a second warning against any image. 

Leaving the fine distinctions aside, we learn an incredible idea from the Maharal. You might think that in order to teach something new, you would have to add something new. But there is such a thing called addition by subtraction. You can say less, but actually say more. In other words, less can sometimes be more.

I remember that phrase from my high school jazz band teacher: less is more. And considering I opened with a music reference, I’ll close with one as well. There’s a known argument as to who is the best rock drummer of all time: John Bohnom from Led Zeppelin, or Neil Peart from Rush. Neal Peart’s drum set had endless sizes and types of drums, cymbals, midi kits, etc., that surrounded him from all sides. His fills and solos were incredibly complex, and were nearly impossible to emulate. But John Bohnum had a much simpler drum set. He also had a much simpler playing style. Yet he is considered by most as the greatest rock drummer. His simplicity had a power and a rhythm that has no equal. 

Sometimes less is more. As Moshe re-tells the 10 Commandments, he doesn’t have the pyrotechnics. And he can’t offer them the voice of the Divine. But he does offer an eternal relationship, one that is as present with them as it was with the previous generation, and with all future generations. And maybe there’s something more in that lesson than even those on Mt. Sinai received. 

What do you think? How can one capture an experience and pass it on to another in the most meaningful way? 

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About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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