Jewish Journal

Power of ten

Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila

Posted on Jan. 30, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Sometime during the 13th century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed “Sefer HaChinuch” (“The Book of Education”). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot.”

This week, I write these words “to inspire the heart of my boy,” my son Ilan, who celebrates his bar mitzvah this coming Shabbat. I compose these thoughts on Parashat Yitro as a gift to my son, with the hope that the sacred words Ilan will read from the Torah this Shabbat — especially the section known as the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments) will inspire him to live a life that reflects the timeless values of these special commandments.

So, Ilan, what is it about these Ten Commandments that is so special? The actual translation of Aseret HaDibrot is not “Ten Commandments” (that would be Aseret HaMitzvot), rather “Ten Utterances.” This section is unique among the commandments, because these 10 were spoken directly by God to the Jewish people. 

While preparing to read your parasha, Ilan, you noticed that the trope for the Aseret HaDibrot is more elaborate and that the verses are much longer. You learned that the public reading of the Aseret HaDibrot is done in ta’am elyon (upper cantillation), which does not divide the verses grammatically, rather by commandment, reflecting exactly how God uttered them at Mount Sinai. You learned that when chanting the Aseret HaDibrot, a special aura of reverence sets in as you are chanting the very words that God spoke at Mount Sinai.

Why did God choose to speak these 10? To address this question, we pause to reflect on the power of spoken words. From the very beginning of time, the Torah teaches us about the power of words.

Genesis Chapter 1 tells of God creating the world. Not a single scientific detail is provided about the process of Creation; instead, we are taught that “God said … and there was ...” Throughout Chapter 1, “God says,” and with the power of the spoken word God creates the entire world. We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite: “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam — Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.” 

The Talmud teaches: “Through 10 utterances, God created the world” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32a).  Ten Utterances — sounds familiar. This parallel between the Ten Utterances of Creation and the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai drew the attention of the Ba’al HaTurim’s commentary (11th/12th century, Germany/Spain). In examining both sections, he discovered something special about the opening line of both sections: They each contain the exact same number of words and letters.

Genesis 1:1: Bereshit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha’aretz (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth). In Hebrew, seven words and 28 letters.

Exodus 20:1: Va-Yedaber Elokim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh le’mor (God spoke all these words, saying …). In Hebrew, seven words and 28 letters.

This remarkable parallel of words and letters brings me to the message that I believe is embedded within these parallels. It is the message that I hope you take with you throughout your life, my dear Ilan (and all others who may be reading).

The job of an architect is to design and build a home. Once he has completed the home, and the inhabitants obtain the key and move in, the architect has nothing to say on how the inhabitants are to live within that home. There may be instructions for certain appliances, but there is no instruction manual on how to live a happy and successful life within the home.

In Genesis 1, God is an architect who builds a home. In 10 utterances, introduced by a verse containing seven words and 28 letters, God designs and builds a home for all of humanity.

But God goes beyond the role of an architect. 

In Exodus 20, with the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Utterances) — also introduced by a verse containing seven words and 28 letters — God provides an instruction manual on how to live in the home that He built for us.

We are taught about ethical monotheism, shunning idolatry, respecting God’s name, taking a day in seven to relax and rejuvenate, respecting parents, respecting human life, establishing faithful relationships, respecting the property of others, living honestly and shunning jealousy.

In 10 utterances, God built a physical world … and in 10 utterances, God established a moral code for all of us. 

My dear Ilan: God’s physical world is beautiful, but filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, stability and surprises. These beautiful Aseret HaDibrot that you proudly read on your bar mitzvah shall serve as your moral compass, helping you navigate through life’s challenges. May they guide you, along with the entire Nation of Israel whose minyan you now join.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC). Visit SEC Hamsa Israel on Facebook for recent SEC activities in Israel.

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