This column is dedicated to my father, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday this past week of Parshat Yitro, in which the Torah records the episode of the revelation at Sinai and Ten Commandments.
I have always wondered about the Ten Commandments. Are they different from the other commandments? Are they the most noteworthy laws? Is there significance to their being revealed? With all the “to-do” about them in this country, you’ve got to wonder what it’s all about.
This notion of Ten Commandments has definitely captured the imagination of the Western world. Whether it be placement in courthouses, courtrooms, or appearing as basic tenets of human moral behavior — folks are quite taken by this ancient Lettermanesque Top Ten.
The appeal may lie in the brevity of those tablets and in their poetic cadence. Perhaps it is the bare-bones, down-to-business quality inherent in the purposeful parsing of the words.
Whatever it is, there is something strikingly captivating about all those “Thou shalt nots.” Certainly, compared to the lengthy, cumbersome, unwieldy list of the 613 commandments, those two balanced sets of five are positively manageable: the convenience and symmetry of two handfuls of laws, one for each finger, is graceful and neat, to say the least.
The Ten Commandments are not just classics — they are the nucleus of Jewish convictions and the heart of our doctrines. However, these 10 are not any more significant than the other 603 commandments.
Though at one time the text of the Ten Commandments was part of the morning prayer service, it was subsequently removed for fear that these 10 would be elevated above the other laws. They are not more important, but they are major categories into which all the other commandments can be subsumed.
Each commandment is carefully crafted and purposefully situated, creating a balanced masterpiece. Check it out: notice the parallel nature between the two sides of the tablets, as number one lies across from number six and on down. With a modicum of creativity, I invite you to link the couplets conceptually.
From the beginning, the sets of parallel commandments teach us God is the author of life, don’t murder; be faithful to God, be faithful to your spouse; don’t take God’s name in vain, especially when testifying about a crime; keep the Shabbat testifies to the truth of God being the Creator; and finally, those who honor their parents are never jealous of what others possess.
But back to the starting point. Some might say the opening of the decalogue is perplexing, there is something critical about it. Look at that first pronouncement: it does not read as a command, as do the other nine.
Scholars argue that that first “commandment” is really not a dictate at all, but rather a splendid declaration: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the House of Bondage.”
This first statement is a principle from which all else emerges. This is a fundamental of Judaism; there is a God. This first decree is not a decree, but a positioning statement that then obligates belief.
Maimonides later codified the mitzvah this way: The first mitzvah is that He commanded us to believe in the Deity, that we believe there is a cause and motive force behind all existing things. This idea is expressed in the statement “I am the Lord your God.”
I wonder, then, about the structure of this first commandment. If indeed the obligation of belief is inherent in the statement, why not employ the same command language pattern that follows in the next nine precepts, and state “Thou shalt believe in God?”
Here lies the beauty and grandeur of the Torah. Standing at the foot of the mountain are a beleaguered mass of newly freed slaves. God lifts them up, beginning not with a command but with an elegant entrée into relationship, as if to say “let me introduce myself.”
The entire thrust of the redemption from slavery and of the embrace of belief at Sinai was a release from bondage and the embrace of human freedoms. Accordingly, that first commandment is a statement. God places before us a reality: it will be incumbent upon us to rise to the occasion.
Indeed, this rising to the occasion is everything as we stood at Sinai. Standing was not so easily done. After the commandments were pronounced, the text tells us, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”
The People Israel recoil from the proximity to God. The closeness is too much and ignites trepidation, afraid that if they “see” God they will perish. The people then approach Moshe and beg him to be the communicator of the balance of the Commandments.
“Be not afraid,” he tells them, “for God has come only to test you, and that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.”
This experience at Sinai was a one-time phenomenon. Never again would an entire people enjoy mass revelation. Jewish thinkers trace much of our belief to that very experience. It is appropriate, then, that it was no simple feat, but that it took courage on the part of the Israelites to withstand the revelation.
This standing at Sinai was a test. Can there be a nation that can handle the approach of God? Here is a people that can experience the awesomeness, and tell their children about it, and know that in that messy mixture of dread and wonder, a relationship is born.
The experience of Sinai is likened in the Midrash to a wedding. The Israelites stand under the chuppah, and with a bride-like apprehension enter into a holy covenant with God. Who does not stand with some degree of uneasiness beneath the chuppah? Intimacy can be frightening, and if a lifetime of commitment is anxiety producing, one can imagine the consternation of the thought of eternal commitment.
Years later, God nostalgically remarks to the prophet Jeremiah, “I remember the devotion of their youth, their love as a bride — how they followed Me into the wilderness.”
Most of all Sinai is about mutuality — God comes down the mountain and we stand there with souls that are lifted up.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.