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Jewish Journal

Contemporary Commandments

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

by Rabbi Susan Laemmle

January 31, 2002 | 7:00 pm

There is little doubt that Aseret Ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments, form the centerpiece of Parshat Yitro and probably the entire Torah.

The congregation rises three times a year when they are chanted. The paired tablets on which they were inscribed adorn most synagogue arks. And this relatively short passage provides the bedrock on which the notion of Judeo-Christian morality is founded. But to what extent, and how, do these unequivocal pronouncements really affect modern people like us? For those of us whose ways of behaving and evaluating have been shaped by literature, psychoanalysis and film, how do we make sense and good use of these absolute imperatives?

Of course, within Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments are always placed in a broader context. Still, there is an austerity and nonnegotiability about these statements that forces us -- me, at least -- to dig deep in order really to take them seriously. Some require more struggle and interpretation than others. It matters who we are, what is happening in our lives and the world. At this or that moment, one or more commandments may speak to us as individuals or a society. Allow me, then, to put on public display elements of my personal confrontation with Exodus 20:2-14 in this winter of 2002.

"I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me." The assurance, historical rootedness and passion of this opening statement arrest me. The Jewish People's emergence from suffering; divinity being identified with freedom; and, yes, the insistence on loyalty, these affect my worldview and sometimes my behavior. Whatever ability I have to see myself in perspective and stand up to overweening authority finds its basis in these and subsequent verses about not bowing down to "other gods." The prohibition against "graven images" does not keep me from valuing art, but it does make me more comfortable in a mosque than in most churches. The prohibitions against taking God's name in vain and bearing false witness connect to my trying hard not to lie and my reluctance to make promises I may well not be able to keep.

Where shall I begin with the fourth, the Sabbath commandment? Surely it changed my life, orchestrates my sense of time and provides my most consistent sense of holiness. I began Shabbat observance before feeling commanded to do so, and it was mostly through such observance that I achieved what faith I have.

As for honoring parents, doing that in a full-hearted way has been a process; not because of my parents' weaknesses but because of my own. Indeed, the fifth, seventh and tenth commandments -- honoring parents, not committing adultery and not coveting -- these are the arenas in which psychological understanding and self-awareness have needed to link up with moral imperatives. Fidelity seems to me the bedrock, challenge and mystery of a good marriage -- the amazing way in which sexual pleasure and intimate sharing nourish the maintenance of a domestic economy, creation of a healthy family and ability to contribute to professional and civic life.

Coveting, like stealing, emerges from itchy dissatisfaction with limitation and separateness. And yet, coveting or stealing what belongs to others, and even murder, can result when human beings are tempted by opportunity or pushed beyond tolerable limits. I am thankful to have been treated leniently following a shoplifting incident as a teenager, and learned from it; and deeply grateful not to have been placed in the line of killing or being killed.

I'm aware that this brief catalogue affirms, more than it demonstrates, how someone can work at reappropriating the ancient, revered Decalogue. When I stand in shul on Feb. 2, I'll be asserting my selfhood and taking my place in the 21st century, as much as recalling the Jewish covenant at Sinai.

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