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Torah Commentary
Va-et'chanan (July 23, 2018)
 
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. 

~ Deuteronomy 5:18

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

~ Exodus 20:14


There are many levels at which we can look at Torah material, from the very literal to the very interpretative. The book of Deuteronomy, although written as Moses’ last speech to the Children of Israel, includes an account of Moses’ death, so I do not believe Moses wrote it. However, I would like to read it literally for the purpose of comparing it to the Exodus account. In Exodus, God gives the Ten Commandments to Israel on Mount Sinai just after they have escaped from Egypt and before they begin their Wilderness journey. In Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the journey they have taken for forty years and exhorts them to follow the laws as they go forth, without him, to the Promised Land.

For the first several verses, the two versions are quite similar. My Hebrew is nonexistent, so I can’t swear by every word, but the English translations are almost identical. When we get to the commandment about the Sabbath, however, things start to get interesting. The familiar Exodus version says, “Remember (Heb: zachor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Deuteronomy, on the other hand, states, “Observe (Heb. Shamor)” the Sabbath.
Of course you have to remember something in order to observe it, but Moses seems more concerned with what the Israelites are going to do than with what they are going to think. Deuteronomy also explicitly commands that slaves be entitled to rest on the Sabbath “for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and God freed you…” In Exodus, the Israelites do not have to be reminded that they were slaves in the Land of Egypt. They have just escaped from Egypt. Forty years later, Moses does not want them to forget, in order that they will behave humanely to other people.

The bridge between the commandments about worshipping God and those about ethical behavior to our fellow persons is “Honor thy father and thy mother.” That doesn’t change between the time of Exodus and that of Deuteronomy. But Exodus continues with “that you may long endure on the land the Lord your God is assigning to you,” while Deuteronomy says, not only “that you may long endure,” but also “that you may fare well.” The Children are about to enter the land, so Moses is justifiably concerned not only that they may endure but that they may prosper.

The two quotes cited at the beginning of this commentary are another example of Deuteronomy’s concern with ethical behavior. While Exodus lists wives as mere possessions, coming after the neighbor’s house, Deuteronomy states “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” as a separate sentence, coming ahead of the list of possessions a man should not covet. This is not to say that Moses was advocating for woman’s liberation, or even for emancipation (male and female slaves are listed as property). But Deuteronomy does show a greater concern for ethical behavior, even to wives who had few, if any, rights.

The sages said of the Torah, “Turn it, Turn it, For everything is in it.” While I don’t generally prefer a literal reading of the Torah, I do think that tiny differences, like the placement of “thy neighbor’s wife,” are important. The Book of Deuteronomy was written at a different time and for a different purpose than the first four books of the Torah. The authors were concerned, not only with the survival of Israel, but with the survival of the values to which it was dedicated. And, while that early nation did not survive, the Jewish people did, along with those values. They are even more important today.


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