This seems to be the year that I want to revisit a lot of musings written thirteen or fourteen years ago. This was around the time I was attending or had just graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School. As I look back at them, some of them show the subtle influences of that particular educational environment, and some do not. Needless to say, my thoughts and understandings about lots of things have changed, some many times, since them. Others have remain doggedly the same. So I offer this revised edition of my musing for parashat Yitro from 5760 (2000.) (You can read the original at Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments if you’d like to compare.)
Even before this age of sound bytes, it has been common practice to wheedle down the full text of Sh’mot 20:1-14 (and its repetition in Deiteronomy) into an abbreviated form. A common Judaic symbol is a representation of the tablets, with short forms of the aseret hadibrot (the ten things, ten words, ten commandments – call it what you will) that express what some believe is their essence. some version use a short phrase, others just a single word to represent each. (An even more basic form simply uses the letters alef through yud, representing the numbers 1 through 10.)
Admittedly, some of the ten commandments can be stated quite plainly and succinctly, and are, in fact, so written in Torah. Lo tirtzakh (Do not murder.) Lo tinaf. (Do not be adulterous.) Lo tignov (Do not steal.) 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?
אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃
Anochi Ad-nai Elohekha asher hotzeitikha mei-aretz mitzrayim mibeit avadim. I am the L”rd your G”d 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 unusual abbreviated form, Anochi Ad-nai. I am G”d. The point is that all the other commandments are dependent on this one thing-that we must know G”d before all else makes any sense. That G”d 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 gods was a given, and even G”d, fearful of being mistaken for some other god by the people, added a further description to be sure the people knew exactly which G”d was speaking to them. That’s certainly a possibility.
Or perhaps, seeing how the Israelites continued to whine and complain and lose faith, G”d felt it necessary to remind them of what G”d 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 G”d’s great deeds.
“You shall have no other gods besides me.” Again, a pretty straight shooting statement. (When I think about these words, I am reminded of how often we refer to the early Israelites as monolatrous, that true monotheism came about much later in terms of actual Israelite belief and practice. For centuries of our early existence, we lived in complete and utter violation of this most basic commandment from G”d. Why? Why was it so difficult for us to be truly monotheistic? Good question to ponder. )
So, no other G”ds. Yet G”d felt the need for further clarification. First, we must not make graven images. I’ve often wondered if this is so because G”d learned a lesson from some of the other gods. Perhaps they are like the djinnis of legend. Build an idol for a god and the god 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 god could allow parts of itself to reside in many idols.) And then it must obey the wishes of the possessor(s) of the idol(s) (or, at the very least, be condemned to listen to their incessantly droll prayers and petitions.) Perhaps G”d was trying to avoid that fate. (G”d does later ask the Israelites to build a place, and later a Temple, where G”d might dwell with the people, but a tent or Temple is not an idol nor a representative shape to capture an image. I will, however, be bold. enough to suggest that the mishkan is more likely to be a place where G”d can be, if G”d chooses, whereas the Temple seems a bit more intended to keep G”d in one place, like a djinn’s lamp, or an idol. The building of the Temple seems almost regressive, and perhaps even an acquiescence on the part of G”d for humanity to have a little control over G”d. “OK, my flawed creations. Have a King if you must. Build your silly little Temple, if you must. Believe that you can exercise some small modicum of control over me if you must. I’ll have the last laugh.” Even though the Temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again, I am not entirely sure G”d had the last laugh.)
But G”d 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 G”d’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. Some of them are religious iconography, yet others of them are things, like money, or technology. And woe unto us, for our passionate G”d 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 G”d, that it was symbolic and not an actual thing G”d 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 G”d-or whoever authored the Torah-engage in pilpul?)
Now, if one tries, one can find a tiny bit of redemption for G”d inflicting punishment for the sins of one generation upon future generations. It’s a form of negative reinforcement. However, it relies upon humans actually caring what happens to their children and grandchildren. One would think this could be a very effective tool (and, in some ways, it has kept Jews in line over the centuries) yet time and again we seem too self-centered to care what happens to our descendants. How many parents have lamented over the failure for their threats of punishment to evoke behavioral changes in their children. What must G”d be thinking about that? You have my sympathies, G”d.
Blessings and curses. The choice has always been ours. This is how our free will manifests itself. We can make our graven images, and worship them, and be reproached for this sin through many generations. Or we can love G”d and obey G”d’s commandments and receive G”d’s kindness even through a thousand generations.
We should not swear falsely using G”d’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 G”d 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 G”d’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, G”d tells us the consequence-G”d 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 G”d’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 G”d’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 G”d’s commandments. Judaism teaches that the gates of t’shuvah, repentance (though that seems inadequate to describe t’shuvah,) are always open. Yes, we can always seek ways to atone for our sins and make amends. That does not mean G”d has acquitted us for our wrongful acts. We Jews sometimes embrace this “gates of t’shuvah are always open” in the very same way we criticize our Christian brethren for their embrace of accept Jesus as a “get out of jail free” card. We forget there’s a difference between pardon, acceptance, and forgiveness.
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 zokheir, 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 G”d elaborates on the commandment before providing yet another rationale. (As a side note, what does it say about G”d’s understanding of humanity that G”d 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.” (Boy have we forgotten parts of this, big time.) When we reduce the fourth commandment to the simple “zakhor 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, G”d reminds us. This is one commandment that really needs the whole text to be understood and obeyed.
Kibed et avikha v’et imekha. 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 G”d is giving to us. Perhaps there is no warning of the penalty because G”d figures even humanity is decent enough at the core that honoring one’s parents is the norm. Sadly, if this is the case, G”d’s faith in humanity has proven inadequate.
Notice it does not say “love” your parents. Parents can be, and usually are, imperfect. It is still possible to show honor and respect to someone, despite their faults. Judaism, in general, asks us to do so, and in the case of our parents, specifically requires it.
If I were to ask G”d for a favor, it might be for G”d to elaborate on commandments five through nine. Do not murder. Is murder, by G”d’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, G”d? I don’t want to hear what the rabbis says is the difference, I want to know what G”d 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, G”d, 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 and too much uncertainty here.
We shouldn’t steal. I guess this means we shouldn’t steal unless it is part of G”d’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, G”d, 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 takhmod, you shall not covet. That wasn’t specific enough for G”d, 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?
Can desire be legislated or even commanded by a Deity? Doesn’t this violate the concept of free will? Is the Torah, is G”d, asking us for a kind of mental discipline? Is coveting sinful when it is merely thought, or is action required? If we eliminate covetous thoughts, what happens to capitalism? (it should be noted that coveting is equally prevalent in, and one reason for failures of alternative economic and social systems.) Seems to me that the whole advertising industry would have to completely rethink how it works if we really took the prohibition against coveting seriously. Consider, too, all the people in the biblical narrative prior to this point who were guilty of coveting.
Yes, going beyond the “sound byte” format of the ten commandments is necessary. But sometimes that is not enough.
What is it that G”d 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.” Or is it? Have we elevated these few commandments far beyond the original intent?
Given the difficulties an d lack of clarity with these ten, perhaps 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 G”d, obey G”d, help G”d finish/repair the world, and lead meaningful lives? Can it be reduced to a simple representation? Is a tablet or a star enough? A cross? A crescent and star? A taijitu? (The Yin/Yang symbol) An Om? A swastika? An ankh? An ahimsa? A chanda? A dharma wheel? A nine-pointed star? All of these fall short of being truly and fully representational of the faith and belief systems they represent. They are but shorthand, triggers, reminders. Perhaps that’s what the ten commandments are – a bit of shorthand, an executive summary, a sound byte. Sound bytes aren’t inherently bad. One would hope the intention of a sound byte is to get the listener to want to investigate further and learn more about the subject referenced. If this is so, then the ten commandments are reasonably successful sound bytes, as long as we see they as triggers to deeper learning and study.
So perhaps simple sound byte representation might do. I’m not sure which one would be best, 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. Or to consider if we can (or should) try to summarize the commandments at all. How close do the ten commandments come to that? Today, I’m feeling it’s not a good idea to place so much emphasis on these ten. Tomorrow, who knows. Good luck in your search and your contemplations.
©2014 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Yitro 5773 – From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 – Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 – Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 – Special Effects
Yitro 5769 – Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B’Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad”nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments