Turning Points: The Ten Commandments series conclusion

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, January 2011

Candace R. Kwiatek

Sinai. Its impact on the course of human experience has never been equaled. For a year, this column has focused on exploring Aseret haDibrot, The Ten Sayings of Jewish tradition known more generally as the Ten Commandments.

They are the most universally famous statements of morality, a characteristic necessary for an orderly society and good individuals.

As rabbi and leadership educator Nathan Laufer describes them in The Genesis of Leadership, the Commandments are God’s “fundamental strategic values” necessary to achieve the vision of humans who will “act with sensitivity and responsibility toward God and other human beings…”

However, the genius of the Decalogue goes far beyond its 10 discrete sayings, as illustrated by the wide-ranging perspectives of biblical commentaries.

For the historian, the Decalogue is the source of three unique concepts: ethical monotheism, the inseparability of religious and secular/social obligations, and community united by obligation rather than interest.

These ideas would go on to provide the foundation for Western Civilization and the great American experiment.

For the linguist, the question is why they aren’t called the Ten Commandments — but rather Aseret Ha’Devarim/Ten Utterances — in Jewish tradition.

While the obvious answer is that the first, “I am the Lord your God…” isn’t a command at all, in the book Essential Torah, George Robinson offers another explanation: “Interestingly enough, the phrase Aseret Ha’Devarim never occurs in the Hebrew Bible outside the four books covering the Exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the wilderness.”

The only other time it appears, he notes, is in I Kings, when Solomon puts them in the Temple ark in Jerusalem.  Robinson then cites Rabbi Jacob Chinitz’s observation that, while the terms khok (statute), torah (teaching), derekh (way), mitzvah (commandment), mishpat (judgment), and other similar ones appear throughout the Bible, only the Ten Commandments are called devarim (things/words).

Chinitz concludes, “The Ten are principles, and more general in nature than the specific commandments.”

For the ancient rabbis, too, the Ten Sayings were “a sort of a table of contents for the rest of the commandments.

The 10 items of the Decalogue are like chapter headings to a book, with the other commandments each falling under one of these ten headings,” writes David Klinghoffer in Shattered Tablets.

Once a central feature of the liturgy, the Ten Commandments eventually lost their significance as “categories” and became singularly important, above all of the other Torah laws.

At that point they were relegated exclusively to the Torah reading cycle, where their overarching significance was largely lost.

For the mystics of the Zohar, the Commandments are like mirror images: “In these five utterances everything is contained. In the (first) five utterances are embodied (the latter) five others. Indeed, there are five within five…”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains, “Each letter, we are told, was carved all the way through the stone so that someone could actually see through to the other side…what could it mean…?  Perhaps there was only one tablet. Read from one side, the words describe what we owe God. From the other side they describe what we must do for one another. And it’s the same thing!”

These mystical descriptions of the Commandments capture the Jewish view that spirituality isn’t just one’s connection with God and ethics aren’t just one’s interactions with others: spirituality and ethics are one and the same.

For the literary analyst, the very structure of the Commandments is significant. In the way of background, Mordechai Wollenberg writes in Thought Control, “There are three categories of expression — thought, speech and deed. In Jewish tradition, controlling one’s actions is the simplest level of self-control and observance. Speech is a little harder. Thought, such an internal, personal level of expression, is the hardest of all.”

In this view, the Commandments are not only about guiding our interactions with God and others, but also about improving our own inner spirit.

If you imagine the Commandments as books on a shelf from one to 10, they increase in difficulty as you move from the center of the shelf in either direction, from deeds to speech and finally to thought.

Acting as bookends, the first (I am God who brought you out of Egypt) and last (Do not covet) both address the control of thought…and the rejection of slavery — to humans and to emotions.

For the information technology specialist, the context of the Commandments provides the most interesting clue, as described by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Covenant & Conversation: Exodus:  “’…You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ God tells Moses just prior to the Revelation on Sinai. But how can that be true, since the priesthood had been delegated to Aaron and his sons? In societies throughout the ancient world, it was the priests who recorded, disseminated, and controlled knowledge. This limited, literate, elite group was tasked with keeping the oral tradition and using complex and arduous writing systems (cuneiform, hieroglyphics, ideograms). The invention of the alphabet was a change in information technology that had a universal impact because — with its manageable 30 or fewer symbols representing consonantal sounds — it made writing, reading, and learning accessible to the masses. And the first alphabet (to which all others are related) was Semitic in origin, appearing in Egypt just prior to the Exodus. Thus, our ancestors were to be, at God’s command, a society of universal literacy.  God’s Word would ‘become the possession of every member of the nation…to know, to read, to study, to internalize, and to make their own.’”

And for you? Are we truly a kingdom of “priests” and a people of the Book? And are we a holy nation — a people of the Commandments?

As I asked in the opening article of this series, do the Commandments shape our lives and, through us, our communities and our country?  What are the Commandments for you?

Family Discussion: How are you a priest, and a person of the Book? How have you used the guiding principles of the Big Ten to frame a response to a moral issue? If not now, when?

Candace R. Kwiatek is a writer, educator and consultant in Jewish and secular education. She is also a recipient of an American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower First Place Award for Excellence in Commentary, and an Ohio Society of Professional Journalists First Place Award for Best Religion/Values Coverage.

Literature to share

A Pickpocket’s Tale by Karen Schwabach: Set in 18th-century England and America, this historical novel introduces youngsters to many lesser-known and thoroughly engaging aspects of the colonial era. Filled with spunky characters, Jewish culture, and the fascinating language of thieves known as flash-cant, this novel is sure to please.

Eve by Elissa Elliott: If you enjoyed The Red Tent, you’re likely to enjoy this novel about the Bible’s first leading lady.  Weaving together ideas from the original biblical text, rabbinic midrash, and modern feminist interpretation, the author has created a dynamic cast of characters and multiple plots that won’t let you put the book down.

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