Breathing in the Ten Commandments

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 2, 2024 / 23 Shevat 5784

Tomorrow, approximately a half hour after services conclude (12:35), our Shevet Meditation Practice Group will resume in Stampfer Chapel. Everyone is invited, whether you have ever meditated or not, or even if you are worried that you wouldn’t be good at it. There’s actually no such thing as being bad at meditation, as the largest part of the practice is becoming more aware. We all start, in other words, wherever we are.

To mark the return of Shevet, today’s Oasis Songs examines the Ten Commandments through the lens of mindfulness.

Reading Time: Four minutes

The Shabbat on which we read Parshat Yitro always feels particularly momentous since we recite the Aseret HaDibrot, or the Ten Commandments on this day. Indeed, tomorrow I will be speaking about the important role that the Ten Commandments and Torah as a whole have had on the Jewish people. Given that focus, it seemed appropriate to take a somewhat different direction for this Oasis Song. While Jewish law has an enormous scope, it rarely is about dry statutes; instead, it has long been a repository of Jewish history, moral dilemmas, and ethical sensitivities.

It is this last part that highlights an important function that the Ten Commandments and Jewish law in general serve, which is the development of the human being. It is this which most differentiates Jewish law from secular legal systems. How do we become better people?

When viewed from this vantage, it is possible to explore the Ten Commandments as a tool to help us foster mindfulness and spiritual growth. Indeed, it is worthwhile remembering that although halakhah is usually translated as Jewish law, it literally means the going, or the way. It also shares the same root as “to walk.” In other words, every one of us at times has to consider how we want to walk through life.

With this background, we can see how the Ten Commandments allows us to foster self-reflection and deepened awareness, which are two goals or outcomes of mindfulness practice. The practice of Jewish meditation creates space in which we become more aware of past actions, as well as our thoughts and motivations.

One powerful aspect of Jewish meditative traditions is to become aware of the sorts of desires that arise within, as well as tracking down what preceded them. The Ten Commandments, especially the “negative commandments,” such as “Do Not Steal,” are very much centered on recognizing our destructive human desires so that we can avoid letting them control us. The mitzvot prohibiting adultery, murder, theft, and coveting, in particular, speak directly to those sorts of desires which destroy us while damaging our relationships.

In addition to being a training ground for such desires, the Ten Commandments also intends to teach us to develop compassion and lovingkindness for others. Honoring our parents is fertile ground for this practice. When we are young and deeply dependent on our parents, we have a clear, immediate sense of love for them. As we enter our teen years and beyond, however, that easy love of childhood changes as we begin to differentiate from them; honoring our parents must be fostered. It often seems that once people develop enduring compassion for their parents, that it is also easier to act that way with others. Additionally, once we nurture compassion for our neighbors, our desire to take from what is theirs diminishes.

In other words, as we develop certain meditative states of mind, observing the Ten Commandments becomes much easier. There are times in practice when we notice a current of rage or anger bubbling within. By following and observing such currents, their force is weakened and normally replaced by a more peaceful and harmonious inner state of being. There was a television show whose premise was that in a particular set of circumstances, anyone would be capable of murder. While that is probably accurate, it is equally true that as we open ourselves up to mindful periods of increased calm and inner peace, we are all less likely to act violently.

Sometimes I have heard from people who have told me that with their busy lives, they don’t feel like they have time for meditation. Part of this attitude likely stems from the misbegotten notion that one isn’t doing anything while meditating. Yet meditation is actually not a passive activity. If one grows tired or lethargic during meditation, this also requires our scrutiny. Moreover, within the Aseret HaDibrot, we encounter the commandment to observe the Sabbath Day. Being able to desist from what are often frantic and mindless activities is an essential gate to holiness. It is also considered a Jewish requirement.

Taking all of these approaches into consideration allows us to view the Ten Commandments as something more than a list of dos and do-nots. As we come to view Jewish law as a path upon which we walk, we can view the Ten Commandments as a powerful invitation to investigate our inner landscape so that we can act with greater kindness and righteousness to those around us. Once we recognize this, we come to see that mindful practice has an inherently social component that can deepen our relationships and open us to holiness, all while enhancing a greater sense of ease.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How might you use the Ten Commandments as a mindfulness tool?
  2. Is there a specific commandment which represents more of a barrier for you that you would like to use as a focus for self-growth?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.