Congregation Beit Simcha of Tucson, Parshat Yitro 5780, February 14, 2020
There is a famous scene in Mel Brooks’ movie “The History of the World Part I.” It shows Moses bringing three tablets of the commandments down from Mt. Sinai, and proudly announcing, “The Lord had given you these fifteen commandments”—and then he drops one of the tablets which shatters, he says “Oy”, and without missing a beat follows that by announcing, “The Lord has given these Ten Commandments to you.”
Or perhaps you prefer this version:
Moses has been up on the mountain for a long time. The People of Israel are getting nervous. Where is he? The tension continues to build until finally a man is seen making his way down the mountain carrying something.
The people gather at the foot of the mountain. Moses reaches the bottom and faces the crowd.
“My people, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is I have negotiated with the Lord and brought him down from twenty to ten. The bad news is adultery is still in.”
Reasonably funny shticks, but they also highlight a problem we have been dealing with for a long time. How many commandments are there, and what are the truly important ones?
But first, a more basic question: just what is a commandment?
In effect, “commandment” is an elaborate word for a rule that requires you to do something, or prevents you from doing something. We call these “laws” when they are established by normal human beings. When we believe they come from a higher source, we call them commandments. It sounds better and more impressive, doesn’t it?
This Shabbat we read the Ten Commandments in our weekly Torah portion of Yitro, one of the most famous written passages in all human history. The Ten Commandments are composed of just 13 sentences, but they are at the heart of all Western religion. But what do they actually say? And what do they really mean? And what did it mean to receive them on Mt. Sinai—as Moses supposedly did?
It’s appropriate to begin with a simpler question: just how many commandments are there in Judaism? Most people would answer “Ten”, based on these Ten Commandments, stars of stage and screen. After all, when inscribed on two stone tablets they form the second most famous Jewish image of all, just after the so-called “Jewish star” the magein David.
In truth, in Judaism there are not just these 10 but actually some 613 commandments, taryag mitzvot, far more than can fit on two tablets or even an entire Imax screen. Of course, many of these 613 mitzvot are not even applicable anymore, as they have to do with the rites and rituals of the days of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Which raises a further question: what exactly is a mitzvah, a commandment, in the first place?
First, we must understand that Jewish morality, and therefore Jewish law, is based on a system of responsibilities, not rights. In America we speak often of our rights, which convey particular protections and even privileges, but far more rarely of our responsibilities, which bring with them acts that we must complete ourselves. The comparison can be summed up in a sentence: a citizen has rights. A mensch has responsibilities.
This is something we might remind the US Congress about from time to time, especially when we consider the Federal deficit and the National debt…
In casual speech a mitzvah is usually translated as “a good deed”, as in “he did a mitzvah”; but the fact is that it means not a nice or pleasant act but a commandment, a law that is to be observed, and the doing of a mitzvah is a good deed precisely because it entails fulfilling a commandment to do it. For a 13 year-old, becoming “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah” means you are now responsible to fulfill these commandments. In the Orthodox world, one who has fulfilled a particular commandment is said to be yotzei, to have completed that religious responsibility. And according to Halakhah, Jewish law, all mitzvot are morally binding and important.
So, if there are 613 commandments in Judaism, what is there about these 10 that makes them so special?
Next, according to our Torah and tradition, of all the many commandments only these 10 were actually spoken aloud by God to us at Mt. Sinai. The rest of the commandments—and there is no perfect list of the other 603, by the way, since we are talking about Jews here and getting us to agree on anything requires a miracle—the rest of the commandments are given by God to Moses and then taught to the people of Israel, or extrapolated by our scholars from the commandments we have already received from God. But the Ten we get in this week’s portion are supposed to have been revealed to us at Sinai—what is called the ma’amad har Sinai, literally the standing at Sinai—and done so very publicly to everyone.
What does this list of ten consist of? The Hebrew name for them is Aseret haDibrot, which literally means the Ten Statements, not the Ten Commandments. If you count them up you will discover that there are really more than 10 specific commands issued in these 13 sentences, and that some of the sentences aren’t really commands at all.
The first of these, for example, is one that is not a commandment at all. Instead it is a faith statement: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery.” While central to Judaism—the belief in one God is the foundation of the faith, and the Exodus in many ways our most powerful collective memory—you are not actually supposed to do anything because of it.
The other nine commandments come down to four commandments that reflect on the relationship between us and God—bein adam laMakom in Hebrew—and five that reflect on the relationship between human beings themselves, bein adam lachaveiro, that is between us alone, without God being directly involved. If the first commandment is a faith statement, only two of the remaining nine are clearly positive, proactive commandments, things we are supposed to do: the commandment to remember and keep the Sabbath, and the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers. The other six are things we are ordered not to do: don’t worship idols and false gods, don’t swear falsely in God’s name, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t commit perjury against another person, don’t covet another’s spouse or possessions.
All of these surely are important parts of the religious, moral order being established by the Torah. Each one of these commandments is later extended in various ways by the Torah and the Talmud in order to further the great Jewish missions of clarifying the purpose of our lives and creating ethical boundaries for our conduct. And in some Midrashim, any one of these commandments can actually serve as the basis of the other Ten.
You can make a case that these Ten Commandments, given in fire and smoke and drama on Mt. Sinai, are not even the most important of the teachings of the Torah. It is in Leviticus that we learn that we must be holy, for God is holy, and that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is in Deuteronomy that we are taught that God has set before us blessing and curse, good and evil, and that is up to us to choose life and goodness.
But these Ten Commandments begin our journey towards placing ethical conduct at the center of our religion, and our lives. In their own way, they are just so Jewish: moral, pragmatic, sensible, and yet idealistic. And when we study them regularly, with commentary, we fulfill an additional mitzvah of seeking to find out what it is God really wants from us, and how we can choose to make our lives holy.
May we so choose on this Shabbat of commandment to really think about and apply our hearts and minds to these mitzvot. And may we learn to do so on every other Shabbat of the year—and every other day, too.