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By Heart

"Mount Sinai", Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula on Shabbat Yitro

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Torah Talk on Shabbat Yitro 5779

Can you recite the Ten Commandments by heart?

I suspect not; most of us can’t. We usually remember, “Thou shalt not murder”—usually misstated as “Thou shalt not kill”—and “Thou shalt not steal.” Most people kind of recall that there is something in there about honoring father and mother, and not swearing. Others might get the adultery part, or perhaps even the Sabbath. Few people remember all Ten.

But whether we know them by heart or not these Ten Statements from this week’s Torah portion of Yitro are supposed to be the only words God ever spoke directly to our people. But they are not really at the heart of our Judaism today. Why not?

In point of fact, we non-Orthodox Jews have trouble with many of the Ten, and struggle to find relevant ways to observe them. Nearly every commandment brings with it a problem, even the most positively phrased. What does it mean to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” if we spend most of Shabbat working? I recall attending the URJ Biennial convention in Toronto a few years ago and hearing Rabbi Eric Yoffie thank the delegates at services for celebrating a non-wired Shabbat, free of iphones. His remarks were immediately posted on Facebook by many of the delegates using the same smartphones they were supposed to have put away for the Sabbath.

Nearly all of the commandments have complications. How are we to suitably honor our fathers and mothers if they are challenging people, or even abusive? Not murdering or stealing seems clear enough, but how can we possibly avoid being jealous of our neighbor’s better job or nicer car? And don’t we take God’s name in vain all the time without apparent repercussion?

But I believe that the commandment we have the gravest difficulty observing among Reform, Liberal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Progressive, Renewal and all the other non-Orthodox Jews is actually the first one. It is the simple statement that there is a God who commands us at all.

Classically this first statement, which contains no apparent commandment to fulfill, has been considered by Christians to be a preamble to the Ten Commandments. But Jews have always insisted on viewing it as a unique and critical statement. Why?

It is because as logical as the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments may seem as a declaration of ethics, if we do not accept the existence of a m’tzaveh, a commander, they essentially lose their power. With no m’tzaveh, no commander, there is no m’tzuveh, no recipient of the command—and in practical terms no real mitzvot, no commandments to be kept at all.

In philosophical terms, the warrant for the authority of the Ten Commandments is in this simple statement: God exists, acts and commands. It is why they are not called the Ten Suggestions. Or the Ten Recommendations. Or the Ten Nice Ideas If You Can Manage To Keep Them.

It is only when we accept the existence of God, when we diminish our own elaborate sense of self that we are able to partner with God to create a moral world. Only when we engage with the Commander do we find the Commandments.

It is up to us, on this week of Parshat Yitro, to find for ourselves the One who commanded them, however we conceive of God—and then to find a way, in our own hearts, to accept our role as recipients of ethical commandment. When we choose to do so we will find that we can then be moral beings, acting on our principles. And we can begin to shape this world for good, and observe the Ten Commandments, just as they were intended to be observed: by heart.

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