Shabbat Yitro 5775: It Takes Two to Get God’s Word

אַחַת דִּבֶּר אֱלֹהִים שְׁתַּיִם־זוּ שָׁמָעְתִּי

Psalm 62 is a paean to divine power, culminating with the tantalizingly opaque statement, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that strength is but God’s, and Yours, Master, is kindness, for You require a man by his deeds” (trans. Robert Alter). What does it mean that God spoke one thing, but two were heard? One explanation is literary—the Psalmist employs here a poetic device of intensification called a “numerical ladder” (Dahood). God spoke not only once, but twice. However, this explanation is not particularly illuminating—what then were the two divine words? When were they uttered? How does this claim relate to the rest of the passage? Maroon Bells

A different interpretation relates to the reception of revelation. When God speaks, the words are multivalent, and thus more than one meaning emerges. In this Psalm, God speaks only once of “paying back” for human conduct, but this expression indicates two opposite things—divine justice, and also divine mercy, punishment and reward. This Psalm points toward the paradox of divine utterances and actions—from a human perspective they may appear to be in direct contradiction, but somehow, opposites are reconciled in the infinite realm of the divine.

Our verse is important for understanding Parashat Yitro, for as the house of Yishmael taught, the revelation on Sinai was like a hammer striking a rock, sending sparks of illumination in all directions (B. Sanhedrin 34a). One utterance; many meanings, not necessarily consistent. In the Decalogue, God commands Israel, “Remember (זָכוֹר) the Sabbath day,” but in Deuteronomy 5:12 a different verb is employed: “Guard (שָׁמוֹ) the Sabbath day.” In the same page of Talmud, Abbaye says that “one verse yields several meanings,” but this only further obscures the phenomenon. After all, we have two different written versions of this divine utterance—so are these two utterances, or two receptions of one? In Talmud B. Sh’vuot (20b) we read that both versions of this command were uttered simultaneously, “what a mouth cannot say, and an ear cannot hear.” God spoke once, but the people heard two things.

Rashi in his commentary to Psalms 62 understands the verse this way: In this Psalm, a single utterance indicates that God is both mighty and compassionate. Rashi seems to have in mind a process of discernment. The human recipient of revelation finds new layers of meaning embedded within it. Yet in his commentary to Exodus 20:8, Rashi focuses not on finding the layers of meaning within one revelation, but rather in reconciling contradictions between different utterances. Perhaps it is not so difficult both  to “remember” and “guard” Shabbat, but Rashi provides three other examples where one divine command contradicts another. We are commanded not to profane the Sabbath, but also to slaughter two sheep on the Sabbath day; not to mix linen and wool, but also to wear tassels of white linen and blue wool; not to allow a brother-in-law to marry his sister-in-law, but also to require just such a marriage if she is widowed without offspring. In other words, God has spoken in contradictory ways, and it is for humans to make sense of the result. We might as well reword the Psalm as, שְׁתַּיִם דִּבֶּר אֱלֹהִים אַחַת־זוּ שָׁמָעְתִּי, “God has spoken twice, but I have understood one thing”!

Over the centuries, many a believer has yearned for the simplicity of Sinai. If only God would once again speak so clearly to humanity. But upon examination, we see this desire for what it is—a vain fantasy. Biblical revelation was never meant to be simple and unambiguous. The nature of the theophany is to draw the recipients into the divine realm of opposite values and practices. This is both the grandeur and the challenge of Judaism. We live most richly in tension between polarities such as transcendence and immanence, justice and mercy, universalism and particularism. We navigate these turbulent waters not alone, but in community, and together we establish the appropriate balance between our conflicting religious demands.

Our own historical moment is one in which the last of these polarities is not merely in tension but in danger of disintegration. Jews no longer seem comfortable expressing both universalism and particularism simultaneously. Some Jews view the broader world with such deep distrust that the only sensible strategy is to retreat into a fortress mentality. Others have grown so uncomfortable with any expression of particularism that the concept of group loyalty has become synonymous with bigotry. A policy of endogamy—of promoting marriage within the Jewish faith, and of refusing to sanctify interfaith marriages—has come to be seen by many as incompatible with a respectful and humble attitude towards people of other faiths. An expression of Zionism—promoting the notion that Judaism is not just a religion but a polity with the need for a physical anchor in the Land of Israel—has come to be seen by many as incompatible with human rights for all.

The pressure to choose one pole or the other is understandable. Assertions of group identity can easily be corrupted into bigotry. Abraham Joshua Heschel was right to proclaim that no religion is an island, and that religion itself should not become the object of worship. It is rather a means unto an end. Yet without any group identity, one loses two irreplaceable assets—a rich religious tradition, and a nurturing religious community. A homogenized identity is no identity at all, and the quest for divine presence can become unfocused and ultimately unproductive. We need a religious community to cultivate a religious identity.

God may speak with one integrated message, but we humans can hear it only through dialogue. Perhaps this verse really means that when God speaks, it takes two people in conversation to understand. Being in hevruta simultaneously deepens and expands identity. A good hevruta respects us for our particularism, even while drawing us out of ourselves and into a productive tension. Just as a scroll held taut by two sturdy poles can steady a parchment to receive writing, so too is it with revelation. It takes two people and two positions to receive the word of God.

Sources

תהלים פרק סב, יב-יג

(יב) אַחַת דִּבֶּר אֱלֹהִים שְׁתַּיִם־זוּ שָׁמָעְתִּי כִּי עֹז לֵאלֹהִים: (יג) וּלְךָ־אֲדֹנָי חָסֶד כִּי־אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לד עמוד א

אמר אביי: דאמר קרא: אחת דבר אלהים שתים זו שמעתי כי עז לאלהים – מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים, ואין טעם אחד יוצא מכמה מקראות. דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא: וכפטיש יפצץ סלע, מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות – אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבועות דף כ עמוד ב

ומאי דבר אחד הן? דבדיבור אחד נאמרו, כדתניא: זכור ושמור בדיבור אחד נאמרו, מה שאין יכול הפה לדבר, ומה שאין האוזן יכול לשמוע.

רש”י תהלים פרק סב פסוק יב

(יב) אחת דבר אלהים – ששמעתי מתוכה שתים ומה הן שתים כי עז לך לשלם לאיש כמעשהו, והשני כי לך ה’ החסד ומאיזה דבור שמענום מדבור שני של י’ הדברות שמענו ממנו שהקב”ה פוקד עון ונוצר חסד שנאמר בו (שמות כ’) פוקד עון אבות וגו’ לכך בטוח אני שישלם שכר טוב לצדיקים ופורענות לרשעים, זו למדתי מיסודו של ר’ משה הדרשן, ורבותינו דרשוהו בזכור ושמור בדבור אחד נאמרו:

שמות פרק כ, ח

זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ:

דברים פרק ה, יב

שָׁמוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ:

רש”י שמות פרק כ פסוק ח

(ח) זכור – זכור ושמור בדבור אחד נאמרו. וכן (שמות לא יד) מחלליה מות יומת, (במדבר כח ט) וביום השבת שני כבשים, וכן (דברים כב יא) לא תלבש שעטנז, (שם יב) גדילים תעשה לך, וכן (ויקרא יח טז) ערות אשת אחיך, (דברים כה ה) יבמה יבא עליה, הוא שנאמר (תהלים סב יב) אחת דבר אלהים שתים זו שמעתי. זכור לשון פעול הוא, כמו (ישעיה כב יג) אכול ושתו, (שמואל ב ג טז) הלוך ובכה, וכן פתרונו תנו לב לזכור תמיד את יום השבת, שאם נזדמן לך חפץ יפה תהא מזמינו לשבת:

 

 

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