The Ten Commandments and Civilization Today

Rabbi Akiva was once asked to explain the entire Torah to someone as they stood on one foot. Rabbi Akiva immediately replied, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The rest is all commentary. Now go and study it."

Now certainly loving one's neighbor is important and beautiful, but is it really enough? Why did he not teach him the 10 commandments? I can stand on one foot for the two minutes it takes to recite them. And in the Ten Commandments, you also have faith in God. In fact, it's the first of them! Where is faith in God mentioned in the verse in Leviticus that Rabbi Akiva chooses to represent the whole Torah?

A different question may shed some light. The third of the commandments receives special mention in rabbinic literature, for they claim that when this commandment was given, the whole world trembled. "Thou shalt not take the Name of The Lord in vain." Why did this commandment, out of all of them, cause the whole world to tremble?

The Kli Yakar commentary compares this third commandment to lifting up a tree by the trunk. All of the branches will shake. God's Name is like the trunk of the tree. It is the interface between the Divine and the Earthly. When one utters it, one rises to connect to Hashem. When one utters it in order NOT to connect to Hashem, it is unsupported, unbalanced, disconnected. Everything shakes and becomes unstable. A world without God's connection to it is deeply unstable. And, by converse, if you see a society that is unstable, know that God's presence there is weak. The tree is shaking, the branches trembling.

An oh-so-true commentary I saw put things in very stark terms. Yes, the commandments forbidding killing, stealing, and so forth SHOULD be crystal clear, but are not. Why? Because of man's incredible ability to rationalize. He can find justification from WITHIN faith to kill, steal, rape, pillage and do whatever comes to his basest nature. He can use God's Name as his cover. We are killing the kuffar, the infidel, he will say.

To this, God says in the third commandment, "Thou shalt NOT take the Name of the Lord in vain!" You may not use Me as a justification for your evil actions. Thus, says this commentary, the whole world trembled, because now they know they would be culpable for all the murder and pillaging, rape and theft.

All of these things come from a disconnect with God, leading to a lethal disconnect from their fellow man. Ultimately, they disconnect from their own humanity and become the monsters we have seen on the news. It is clear and obvious and real.

Rabbi Akiva was interested in something else when he gave his answer of loving one's neighbor. He wanted to get people on the path to CONNECTION, to One-ness, to God. God is One, He desires all humanity to be as one. When Israel arrived at Sinai to receive the Torah, they arrived "as one man with one heart."

Character is the most determining factor in one's righteousness or lack thereof. Evil character, a hateful nature, gives one the impetus to disconnect from one's fellow, from one's self, from one's humanity. Good character, on the other hand, a loving nature, leads one to connect to one's fellow, to nature, to humanity, and, yes, to God. Be connected, says Rabbi Akiva, be a lover. Open your arms and your heart to others. When you do that, you will come to love yourself, and you will come to love God.

So Rabbi Akiva did not expressly mention faith, but he showed us the express path to it. The whole world shook when it heard about keeping God's Name connected. Imagine how wonderful the world WILL BE when we take God's Name, lift it up and connect it to all creation!

Jethro and the 10 Commandments

The Torah reading that contains the 10 Commandments is called Jethro. It commences with the state visit of Moses's father-in-law, Jethro. Some rabbis feel that this entire story of Jethro and his visit, which we shall describe shortly, took place after the 10 Commandments were given. Why, then, is it written beforehand?

Some claim that it is because of a common theme connecting Jethro and the revelation at Mount Sinai: Conversion. Jethro became convinced of the Jewish faith and converted. The entire Jewish people, upon receiving the 10 commandments, could be considered as converts as well. This is a perfectly acceptable explanation. I'd like to suggest another as well.

Both the Jethro story and the Sinaitic Revelation story contains three parts. Jethro comes to visit the Israelites and is welcomed in a grand ceremony. He then blesses God for having brought the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Finally, he observes Moses attempting to judge every single bit of litigation that the people have all by himself. He counsels Moses to appoint judges of "thousands and hundreds and tens," to help bear the burden. Moses follows Jethro's instruction.

The Revelation starts with the dramatic and festive preparations for the event. The mountain is cordoned off, the people are to prepare themselves and purify themselves. Next, the first five of the 10 Commandments are given. Finally, the last five of the 10 Commandments are given. There is a reason why I divided the 10 Commandments into two parts, which is one of the reasons why they were given on two tablets. Allow me to explain my theory.

I believe that the 10 Commandments are more than simply 10 special mitzvot. These Commandments were singled out because they give Israel its identity. We are taught who is our God, and who are we to be. The first commandment is "I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of Egypt." Some ask why God did not identify Himself as the Lord who created the heavens and the earth? The answer is that these Commandments are to give Israel their identity. The fact that God created the heaven and the earth does not impact our identity. The fact that God brought us out of Egypt does.

In fact, way back at the burning bush, Moses was puzzled by the question of what merit the Israelites had? Why did they deserve to be redeemed? God responded, "When you bring them forth from Egypt, they will serve Me on this mountain." In other words, the Exodus and the Revelation must go together. Why?

Israel is a nation with a purpose in the world. We were afflicted with Egyptian slavery and oppression. We experienced firsthand man's inhumanity to man. A theme in the stories of the book of Genesis is fraternal tension and violence. It starts almost at the beginning, with Cain and Abel. God wants the world to be fixed, and that is the problem that needs fixing. When you read the newspapers today, you realize that almost all human suffering is the result of other humans. Would that we could wave a magic wand and make that disappear!

That is our main purpose. God, therefore, tells us that He is the One who brought us out of Egypt, so that we must appreciate the need to eliminate what we suffered in Egypt from the face of the earth. The other four of the first set of the commandments serve to further define that goal.

We are told not to have any other gods, meaning, not to espouse any other ideology or national goal.

We are told not to take the Lord's Name in vain. In other words, do not distort God's goal for the world by using His Name to justify any other ideology.

We are told to observe the Sabbath day, in order to make this mission a part of our conscious existence. We need to take time to reflect on it, meditate upon it, and recommit to it.

We are told to honor our parents, those who teach us the traditions and transmit this crucial mission to us. Our parents, our rabbis, our sages, are the way that we connect to God's teachings and our national goals.

The third section, the latter five commandments, are teaching us the potential obstacles to fulfilling these Divine goals. Any of the five character traits that lead to these sins will push the individual off of the track. Do not be consumed by hatred – thou shalt not kill. Do not live a life of lust – thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not be consumed by greed – thou shalt not steal. Do not live for jealousy – thou shalt not bear false witness against your compatriot. Finally, do not live in the pursuit of honor and the throes of jealousy – thou shalt not covet what is thy neighbor's.

I see a parallel to all of this in the introductory story of Jethro. Very often, we are incapable of seeing ourselves as we really are. When Jethro comes, he bears witness to the national character and potential of the children of Israel. His arrival is festive, just as the preparations for the Revelation were festive and dramatic. In both cases, we are about to get information about the most important question: Who are we and what are we supposed to do?

The answer to that is the first five of the commandments. And, in Jethro's case, he blesses God who "saved you from Pharaoh and Egypt. I now know that God is the greatest of all of the gods, because of that which they attempted to do to you." In other words, man's inhumanity to man, Egypt's attempts to harm and destroy Israel, were the very reason for God's redeeming them. Thus, this is a nation that must dedicate itself to eradicating that form of hatred from the face of the earth.

Thirdly, the second part of the 10 Commandments deals with the potential obstacles. Jethro sees a potential obstacle to the entire national project in Moses's insistence on being the sole judge. If he continues this way, Jethro implies, the people will never reach the promised land. Judaism can only survive when the Torah is accessible to everyone, in every generation. Moses's job is twofold: to receive and teach the people Torah, and to ensure that there will be future teachers of Torah to keep the tradition alive.

Thus will we achieve our national mission, and thus will any individual achieve any important project in their life. The first step is to recognize that importance, as symbolized by the festivities at the start of both stories. The second step is to define what that mission is, as symbolized by the first five commandments and Jethro's blessing of God. The third step is to be aware of, and prepare for, the obstacles that can prevent the mission from being accomplished. That is symbolized by the final five commandments, and by Jethro's correcting Moses's system for transmitting the message and the mission.