Even before this age of sound bytes, it has been common practice to wheedle down the full text of Sh'mot 20:1-14 into an abbreviated form. A common Judaic symbol is a representation of the tables, with short forms of the aseret hadibrot that express what some believe is their essence.
Admittedly, some of the ten commandments can be stated quite plainly and succinctly, and are, in fact, so written in Torah. Lo tirtzach. Lo tinof. Lo tignov. These seem obvious enough. We shall return later to consider if this is truly the case, but for now, we'll accept this premise.
But let's start at the beginning. What is this first commandment? Is it even a commandment? Anochi Ad-nai Elohecha asher hotzeiticha mei-aretz mitzrayim mibeit avadim. I am the L-rd your Gd who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage. What, exactly, is the commandment here?
Some scholars suggest that the very essence of this commandment is described by its usual abbreviated form, Anochi Ad-nai. I am Gd. The point is that all the other commandments are dependent on this one thing-that we must know Gd before all else makes any sense. That Gd must be a given, the foundation.
Then why all the rest of the text? Is it simply because, in that time and place, the existence of multiple gds was a given, and even Gd, fearful of being mistaken for some other gd by the people, added a further description to be sure the people knew exactly which Gd was speaking to them. That's certainly a possibility.
Or perhaps, seeing how the Israelites continued to whine and complain and lose faith, Gd felt it necessary to remind that of what Gd had done for them, in the most recent past. That's a pretty sad commentary on our ancestors. But these words can do for us today what they might have done for our ancestors. Provide anamnesis. That's a fancy way of saying "making the past present" which is a pretty prominent idea in Judaism and Jewish ritual. When we read this commandment, we, too, are reminded of Gd's great deeds.
"You shall have no other gds besides me." Again, a pretty straight shooting statement. Yet Gd felt the need for further clarification. First, we must not make graven images. I've often wondered if this is so because Gd learned a lesson from some of the other gds. Perhaps they are like the djinnis of legend. Build an idol for a gd and the gd is compelled to dwell within it, and be forever limited to that shape, and that function, and perhaps even that place (or places, as if a gd could allow parts of itself to reside in many idols.) And then it must obey the wishes of the posessor(s) of the idol(s) (or, at the very least, be condemned to listen to their incessantly droll prayers and petitions.) Perhaps Gd was trying to avoid that fate. (Gd does later ask the Israelites to build a place, and later a Temple, where Gd might dwell with the people, but a tent or Temple is not a idol nor a representative shape to capture an image.)
But Gd goes on. A simple reading of the following text would make it appear that the creation of any kind of images of organic and inorganic things that exist in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters below is prohibited. If so, a lot of artists would be in big trouble. So we assume that the context of Gd's instructions refer to making images of anything that we would pray to or worship (and that anything could be organic or inorganic.) Even if we assume this interpretation we, as a species, have not done well in obeying it. For we do make images of things organic and inorganic and worship them as we should not do. We do bow down before them and serve them. And woe unto us, for our passionate Gd shall inflict the iniquities of parents upon children, even unto future generations.
This passage has always been troubling. Some of the prophets even went so far as to present opposing viewpoints, claiming this was not true of Gd, that it was symbolic and not an actual thing Gd would do. (We Jews seem to be very fond of this workaround for the troubling parts of the Torah. Perhaps it's time to challenge that practice? Is there another way to appropriate these troubling passages without reducing them to being simple metaphor or hyperbole? Does Gd-or whoever authored the Torah-engage in pilpul?)
Blessings and curses. The choice has always been ours. We can make our graven images, and worship them, and be reproached for this sin through many generations. Or we can love Gd and obey Gd's commandments and receive Gd's kindness even through a thousand generations.
We should not swear falsely using Gd's name. That's a little harder to put into two or three words. "Don't swear" doesn't capture it correctly. Even "don't swear falsely" is inadequate. It's the use of Gd in the oath that is the crux of the commandment. This would seem, perhaps, license to swear falsely in an oath that doesn't invoke Gd's name. I think that kind of interpretation kind of ignores the intent of the commandment, but a strict reading might permit it. If we violate this commandment, Gd tells us the consequence-Gd will not acquit of us this deed. That is the curse. There would appear to be no hope of forgiveness for the act of swearing falsely by Gd's name. For my Xtian friends, I know this could be a very troubling idea. As a Jew, it troubles me, though perhaps for different reasons. I am not sure I must have Gd's forgiveness for all my misdeeds. I must only act to do what I can to compensate somehow for them. Mostly by trying, next time, to do something according to Gd's commandments.
Four entire verses are dedicated to buttress what would appear to be a simple commandment: remember the day of Shabbat. But the command is not just zocheir, remember, but also l'kadsho, to keep it holy. Holy in Judaic terms usually means separate, apart, clean.
What I find interesting here in "the rest of the commandment" is that here Gd elaborates on the commandment before providing yet another rationale. (As a side note, what does it say about Gd's understanding of humanity that Gd feels it is not enough to just give us commandments, but that we must also be given reasons to obey them, and also told what will happen when we do and do not follow them. And not just reasons right here in the text-but in all the rest of the Torah, written and oral.) We are told here, straight out, one thing we must NOT do in order to make Shabbat holy. We may not work. Not us, our slaves, our animals, even the non-Jews who live with us in our "settlements." When we reduce the fourth commandment to the simple "zachor et yom HaShabbat"-remember the Sabbath day" it's far to easy to forget or overlook the "lo ta'aseh" - do not do (work). And lest we forget why the seventh day is special, Gd reminds us. This is one commandment that really needs the whole text to be understood and obeyed.
Kibed et avicha v'et imecha. Honor your father and mother. Pretty simple. This time no word of what failure to do so will bring, but only a telling of what good will come when we do so-that we may live long on the land Gd is giving to us. Perhaps there is no warning of the penalty because Gd figures even humanity is decent enough at the core that honoring one's parents is the norm? Sadly, if this is the case, Gd's faith in humanity has proven inadequate.
If I were to ask Gd for a favor, it might be for Gd to elaborate on commandments five through nine. Do not murder. Is murder, by Gd's definition, only something done by a human to another human? Or is murdering animals, or murdering our planet also wrong? The inadequacy of this commandment is dealt with later to some degree with the ideas of cities of refuge for those who kill without deliberate intent. But even this is inadequate. Does a soldier kill by intent? Is this murder or is it killing? What is the difference, Gd. I don't want to hear what the rabbis says is the difference, I want to know what Gd says the difference between killing and murder is.
No adultery. Ok, does this apply equally to men and women? To gay men and women? And what exactly, Gd, is your definition of adultery. After all, our ancestors often had wives, concubines, and often consorted with prostitutes. Is it adultery to lie with a prostitute? Is it only adultery if the prostitute is married? There are just too many loopholes here.
We shouldn't steal. I guess this means we shouldn't steal unless it is part of Gd's plan. After all, Jacob stole Esau's birthright! Israel stole land from the Canaanites! David stole Bathsheba (and had murder committed in the process.) And is it stealing to take back something that is rightfully ours? Why, oh why, Gd, did you leave it up to us to figure this all out. We've not done so well at it.
We mustn't speak falsely of our friends. Does this mean we can speak falsely of our enemies or our family members or of strangers? This one, too, needs some serious elaboration.
Finally, lo tachmod, you shall not covet. That wasn't specific enough for Gd, so we get further clarification. This applies to things that belong to our neighbor. What if my neighbor has happiness and I don't? Shall I not covet happiness? Can I covet something that a stranger, or an enemy, or a family member has?
Yes, going beyond the "sound byte" format of the ten commandments is necessary. But sometimes that is not enough.
What is it that Gd is teaching us here? Why are some commandments more elaborated than others? What are some so obscure, or fuzzy? What is to be inferred from this. After all, this is supposed to be the "big ten."
Well, ten commandments are not enough. And ten commandments are not all we have (nor, do I believe, are the seven noahide commandments all that is requisite of non-Jews.)
That is why we go on to Mishpatim next week. That is why we have the whole Torah-written and oral. We cannot simply live our lives by these ten. If we are, we are missing the boat. We are failing to see the forest for the trees.
Maybe we should tear down all those images of stone tablets from our sanctuaries, and replace them with something else. Some might say the number 613 might be a nice replacement. But I would say that even those 613 commandments are not all. What symbol could possibly represent all it is that we need to know in order to love Gd, obey Gd, help Gd finish/repair the world, and lead meaningful lives?
In this case, I do think a simple sound byte representation might do. I'm not sure which one would be best - "Anochi Ad-nai" or "Sh'ma Yisrael" or "Ahavta et Ad-nai Elohecha" or some other. And that's a discussion for another time. But a good way to spend this Shabbat might be in study (or at least the start of study) of all the things written and told to us by our ancestors (and even our contemporaries) in an attempt to know what, if any, sound byte, might sum it all up. Good luck in your search.
© 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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