Who Knows Ten?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 31, 2020 / 10 Av 5780

THROUGH A LENS OF FIRE: Last class of Hasidic Insights on the Torah until November meets on Wednesday August 29th at 12:30 pm. Please check the CNS calendar for the most up to date Zoom link.

Summary: This week’s Oasis Song focuses on the 10 Commandments, which is in this week’s Torah reading.

The Ten Commandments is on my mind because it is included in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Va’etchanan. This is the second iteration of the Decalogue, as it’s also called in English. The first time they appeared was back in Exodus, chapter 34. The major difference between Exodus and Deuteronomy versions is that one speaks of “observing” the Shabbat, and the other of “remembering” it.

When did you first learn about the Ten Commandments? Can you remember?

If you grew up at Neveh Shalom when our current campus was already built, it was probably pretty early. As you probably know, the Ten Commandments on the street side of our main sanctuary are the largest in the world. It took some holy chutzpah to put those up—and a good scaffold! Thank you Rabbi Stampfer.

I can recall the first time I learned many lessons in math as a young child, learning to read or the moment I could finally decode an analog wall clock to tell time. What I can’t recall is when I first became aware of the Ten Commandments. They have always been there, sort of in my mind’s prehistory.

Learning about the significance of the Ten Commandments, however, came later. For example, why Chaza’l, our Sages of old, downplayed their importance (because some people argued that they were the only thing Moses brought down from the mountain, instead of the entire Torah.)

It also wasn’t until rabbinical school when I discovered that Jews, Protestants and Catholics don’t even have the same set of Ten Commandments. Sort of. Many of the differences are small, or involve numbering.

Two of them, though, pose substantive differences. For many Protestant groups, the first commandment is “You shall have no other Gods before (besides) me. For Jews, it is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Doesn’t sound like much of a commandment, does it? That’s because the Hebrew never uses the word mitzvah or commandment. Rather, the Hebrew, aseret hadibrot, is properly translated as Ten Speech Acts. We have 613 commandments as Jews, not 10.

The first speech act is thus more a statement about covenant and shared history between God and us. There is something touchingly intimate about that. As we all know, if you share a history with someone, chances are that you also have some obligations and responsibilities toward them. That’s a different form of “commandedness.” If you want to look at the differences in depth, here’s a link to a chart on BeliefNet.

The Beliefnet chart isn’t perfect chart, but it is still useful. It makes a major error in translating the 6th commandment. In both early Protestantism and Catholicism, that is translated as “you shall not kill,” probably because that is how the King James version translation put it. The Hebrew though, lo tirzach, states “you shall not murder.”

The Torah has always believed we have the right of self-defense, and while both killing and war are discouraged, the Torah has always had a realistic notion of human nature. Although the Talmud explains we should do the minimum necessary to save our life from threat, we indeed may kill if that is the only way to do so. By the way, several more modern Christian translations now say, “You shall not murder.”

There is an old Jewish joke that God shopped the Ten Commandments around to a number of different nations, trying to get a taker. Each one asked what was in it. Inevitably, God would state the one commandment that their given culture would have had the greatest difficulty observing. A particularly violent society, for example, rejected it because they disliked the prohibition on murder, and so on.

Exasperated, God goes to the Jews and says “I have this Torah, do you want it?” This time God is prepared, and when we ask, “what’s in it?,” God replies “there are 613 commandments.” To which we answer, “sounds like a good deal, sure.”

Hidden behind the self-deprecating humor is a notion that each of us probably has a favorite commandment—one we are all in on, as well as other commandments that we find difficult to comply with. As an example of this, Rabbi Telushkin once wrote that if you randomly poll people, the least known is the 9th commandment prohibiting us from committing perjury.

Given the tech hearings before Congress this week, one might wonder if any of the tech giants perjured themselves. Moreover, since each has been accused of monopolistic behavior, one might also wryly wonder if the commandment they have the most trouble with is the 8th, “You shall not steal.” Monopolies steal many things from consumers, including choice and the advantages of competition.

It has often been noted that laws are written to constrain frequent bad behavior, not to outlaw actions that no one does. There is no law that says we must drink water or eat, because anyone who can, does. This brings us to the enduring legacy of the Aseret HaDibrot. This basic code of human morality remains relevant because as a species, we continue to break parts of it on a recurring basis. Perjury, stealing, murder, adultery, honoring parents, observing the Sabbath, believing in God…few of us disobey the entirety of this list, and probably just as few of us can say in all honesty that we faithfully follow them all either.

Before the days of computerized navigation and gps, airplane pilots would apparently radio the control tower at PDX to let them know “we can see the ten commandments now.” That gave the flight controllers a good idea of when the plane would make it to the airport. As I like to quip, “the pilots use the Ten Commandments to navigate. Maybe we could also use them to do a better job navigating our lives.”

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Every society needs a code of laws and shared agreements. If you were making your own list today, what would you include on it? Does the current list feel sufficient?
  2. When did you first learn about the Ten Commandments? What did your teacher say about them?
  3. Most of us have our own internal set of basic beliefs that guide our choices. What are some of the ones you follow?

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.

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