February 12, 2004
Cherish and Respect
Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
The Ten Commandments are one of the most fascinating documents in the history of mankind. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles and commentaries were written around them. They decorate, in different forms and media, almost every synagogue and public Jewish facility, and recently they were in the center of a fiery debate regarding the separation of church and state. But from all discussions and debates of commentators and scholars throughout the ages, one question stands out: What is the logic behind the division of the commandments on the Tablets of the Law?
We assume that five were written on each tablet. If this is the case, than we can easily identify the common denominator of the last five commandments as ben adam lahavero, the laws that regulate human relationships: Do not steal, murder, commit adultery, etc. But it is the first half of the Decalogue that poses a problem. The first two commandments order us to believe in God and not worship idols, the third forbids us from carrying God's name in vain, the fourth speaks of the Shabbat and the fifth commandment is: "Honor your father and mother." How are these commandments related, if at all? Even if we try to put these commandments under the rubric of ben adam lamakom, man's obligation toward God, the fifth will be singled out.
I would like to suggest a new approach that will clarify these questions and will maybe help us understand the magnificent power in the simplicity and directness of the Decalogue.
Let us start from the end. The five last commandments tell us not to infringe upon others' rights, not to take something which does not belong to us, whether by force, distortion of justice or even thought alone. Hence, you shall not murder, take someone else's life.
You shall not commit adultery, take someone else's wife. You shall not steal, take the property of others. You shall not bear false witness, deprive the others of the justice they deserve. And, finally, you shall not covet that which is not yours, you have to learn to respect the property, privacy and rights of others.
The first five prepare us for the last five by educating us to appreciate and use properly that which is ours.
The Decalogue opens with a statement; "I am the Lord, your God." This is not only "I am in charge, you have to obey me," but also "I am your God, I belong to you." To have a God and to be able to communicate with this God is a great gift and one that should be properly appreciated.
The second commandment is not to worship natural or man-made objects, and here again the idea is that these are gifts given to mankind for our benefit. We should use the natural world wisely, neither abusing it nor turning its elements into gods.
The third commandment is not to carry God's name is vain. This warning contains much more than the traditional interpretation of taking a false oath. It means that God's name is in our hands. We can use it, but not abuse it. We can carry it proudly, but not in vain. Any religious leader, clergyman or scholar who uses the words or the name of God as a tool to achieve power and control definitely transgresses this concept.
The fourth commandment speaks of Shabbat. Elsewhere in Exodus (16:29), God refers to the Shabbat as a gift: "Mark that the Lord has given you the Sabbath." The Shabbat, that revolutionary idea that everyone deserves freedom, that day that forces us to take a break from our demanding routine, is a precious gift that I doubt mankind would have granted itself willingly. We should take advantage of this day and use its leverage to imbue our mundane life with spiritual growth and peace of mind.
Lastly, the fifth commandment urges us to treasure our family, a gift that when appreciated and handled correctly can bless us with joy and happiness for life.
It is interesting to note that the first five, which teach us to cherish our gifts, start with the word anochi, I, and conclude with noten lach, give to you, while the second five, which instill the respect to others conclude with asher le-re'echa, that which belongs to your friend.
So the message of the Decalogue is simultaneously simple and sophisticated, as practical now as it was then, and reverberating for eternity. Appreciate and cherish that which is yours, and once you have this positive attitude to life, surely you will not be tempted to infringe upon other's rights or to try and take away from them what is theirs.
Haim Ovadia, rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.