alternate textThe traditional Torah Reading for this week covers the portion from Shemot (Exodus) 18-20 and includes the group of verses known as the Ten Commandments – sometimes also referred to as the Ten Words or the Ten Utterances. Many of us have grown up with the custom of the reading of Exodus 20 during Sunday morning church services, with the entire congregation standing while the words are being read. The Ten Words or the Ten Utterances are, of course, widely recognized as one of the most essential parts of Scriptures and, in the broader sense of the word, the corner stone of a fair and just society. There was a story in the news this past month of the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme court, Roy Moore, who was reinstalled in his position as Chief Justice, after he was removed from that same position ten years ago. The reason why he was removed ten years ago, was because he refused to remove a sculpture of the Ten Commandments placed outside the Alabama state courthouse. The Federal court issued a ruling ten years ago that it was a violation of church-state separation to have the Ten Commandments displayed at a public place of justice.

On the issue of standing while the Ten Words are being read: The Jewish Talmud contains a portion whereby the daily reading of the Ten Commandments is forbidden, because of “the claims of the sectarians”. The “sectarians” in this context are obviously the Christians who believed that only the Ten Commandments were binding and eternal, not the rest of the Torah. The writers of the Talmud felt that if they allowed the Ten Commandments to be treated as more important than the rest of the Torah, they would play right into the hands of those who cannot appreciate the Torah. They wanted everyone to know that the whole of Torah – all 613 commandments as a complete unit – was given by the Almighty and was therefore divine and binding and eternal. One of the Jewish sages, the well known Maimonides, who was born in Spain and lived during the 12th century, once said that he was opposed to standing up for the reading of the Ten Commandments, unless one always stood up for the Torah reading. He said that standing up for the reading of the Ten Commandments only, would lead to the mistaken idea that one part of the Torah is greater than another.

There is a number of traditions in Judaism surrounding the Ten Commandments that are worth taking notice of. The first of these is based upon Ex 32:15 where it is said that the two tablets had writing on both sides, not only on the one side. According to the Talmud, this verse implies that the carving of the letters went right through the thickness of the stone. The pieces of stone in the centre part of some letters were not connected to the rest of the tablet, but they did not fall out. Moreover, the writing was also legible from both sides; it was not a mirror image of the text on the other side. The Talmud regards these two phenomena as supernatural miracles, based upon the fact that the letters were written by Yahweh’s own hand.

There is another tradition, based upon the fact that there were two tablets, but no indication of how many commandments appeared on each tablet. This tradition says that there were ten commandments on each of the two tablets. In other words, the two tablets were exact copies of each other. Why would there be two similar copies? Because the Ten Words constituted a covenant between the Almighty and his people. And whenever a covenant was drawn up between two parties, each of the parties would receive a copy of this covenant. The proper place for a nation to keep their copy of the covenant would be in their most set-apart place, their temple or their main place of worship. And in this case, where the “other party” is the Almighty, who dwells in heaven, his copy would also be kept in the set-apart place here on earth, the place that signifies his presence among the people. That is why both tablets containing the Ten Words were put in the ark of the covenant and kept in the tabernacle and, later on, the temple.

The third tradition is truly an amazing one. It is based upon the fact that Ex 20 informs us that the voice of the Almighty, speaking to Mosheh on the mountain, was such that it was accompanied with lightning and thunder and smoke and caused the people to tremble and stand at a distance, asking Mosheh (Moses) not to let Elohim speak to them, lest they die. The tradition says that this voice of Yahweh, speaking the ten most important words that were ever spoken, was a voice without an echo. Sounds are usually echoed because the cliffs of mountains and the walls in a city cannot absorb the sound waves and therefore reflect them back to where they came from. In this case, however, the words came from the mouth of the Almighty and when He spoke the words “I am Yahweh, your Elohim … “ there was nothing that could prevent the passage of his voice. There was nothing that could withstand the penetration of these all embracing words. No human being, not even the material objects of this world. His voice was absorbed into the every kind of substance of this world, it did not bounce back – thus, on that day, when Yahweh uttered the Ten Words, his words had no echo. This is only a tradition, but it makes one think of how people, even in our day, are constantly trying to block out and “bounce back” the words of the Almighty – as if those words have no importance at all.

Although the Ten Words were given to Yisraél as a nation and, in a wider sense to all who would consequently be identified, in some way or other, as the set-apart people of Yahweh, the passage starts with the words “I am Yahweh, your (singular) Elohim …” In English the word “your” can have singular or plural meaning. In Hebrew, however, there are two different ways of writing “your (singular) Elohim” and “your (plural) Elohim”. The text here implies that Yahweh is the Elohim of each individual person and each individual person is called upon to honour Him by keeping each individual commandment. As an individual I do not have the freedom to comfortably disappear within the group to which I belong or the assembly of people with whom I identify. No, I have a personal responsibility before Yahweh – the One who has reached out for me as a person and said that He is MY Elohim.

Furthermore, we need to recognize the fact that it wasn’t Mosheh who told the people that Yahweh was their Elohim. It was Yahweh Himself. The words “I am Yahweh, your Elohim” came from his own mouth. As a matter of fact, both the first and the second commandments came from the very mouth of Yahweh and perhaps it was after the first two commandments that the people complained and asked Mosheh to be Yahweh’s spokesperson, instead. Only from the time when the third commandment is introduced, and onwards, do we hear phrases like “Yahweh does not leave the one unpunished who brings His Name to naught”; “in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth” and “Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart”. We have become so accustomed to casually refer to the words of Yahweh. Have you ever paused and though about it: These ten words were uttered by the Almighty Himself? In those days the mountains and all surroundings trembled at the impact and the thrust of these words. What kind of effect do the very same words have on my own life and my own world?

The first word of the passage containing the The Ten Commandments is “anochi”, which means “I” (referring to Yahweh) and the last word is “re’echa”, which means “your neighbour”. These two words provide a summary of the Ten Words – five of them are about honouring and loving Yahweh and five are about honouring and loving one’s neighbour. Some people say the first four is about Yahweh and the last six about the neighbour. It depends on how one looks at the fifth commandment: “Respect or honour your father and your mother”. I would prefer joining this one with the first group. It is only through honouring and respecting our fathers and our mothers that we learn to honour and love our heavenly Father. And it is through our fathers and our mothers that Yahweh wants to teach us his ways, his discipline, his fairness and his love.

Throughout the ages people have taken the liberty of ignoring the Ten Words or leaving out one or two commandments – ones that did not suite their lifestyle or fit in with their religious convictions. Which commandment in your estimation, is unimportant enough to leave out or to ignore? Will you really stand up before the Almighty and inform Him that there are one or two that you do not deem to be important and that you don’t intend to keep? Let us rather stand up and say without hesitation: Yahweh, I know that these were not your only words but they were most certainly part of your very own words and I, for one, would like to take seriously every single one of them!

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