So you’ve all heard of the 10 Commandments right?
It’s a list of all the basic things we’re supposed to do and not do according to the Torah. But when we look at the commandments closely, they’re a bit more tricky than we might think.
Like the first one – it’s not really a commandment at all. It’s a statement.
The first commandment says:
I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Book of Exodus, Chapter 20)
This first commandment isn’t something to do – like honor your parents
or something not to do like don’t lie.
It’s a straightforward statement about God. God was the one who freed us from slavery.
Isn’t that kind of strange? Why would these really important commandments start with something that ‘s not really a commandment at all?
Well, let’s think about that for a minute.
How do important things start? How do we prepare ourselves for a big day like a test in school or an important game?
I think any coach or teacher would guide us to have a good attitude right?
Think positive, focus, believe in yourself and you can do whatever is ahead.
The Ten Commandments I think are doing the same thing. It’s starting with attitude. Our attitude should be one connects us to God and one that remembers this great thing God did for us by giving us freedom from slavery.
A lot of other commandments are going to be about what to do and what not to do. There are a lot of commandments in the Torah – not just the 10. There are actually 613 commandments / mitzvot. So guess what – we’re not always going to get them perfectly correct.
So attitude is everything! If we have an attitude that we are connected to God, an attitude that we are grateful to God and an attitude that we are partners with God, then all our mitzvot become even stronger.
So isn’t that kind of cool? The Ten Commandments, from so many generations ago, understood the idea of attitude or intention. Let’s do our best to bring that good attitude to all our actions this week!
In this series, we are moving through the 10 Commandments and today I’d like to look at the Second Commandment.
Now this is a long one. We think of the 10 commandments as 10 short statements, but this one is actually 3 rather long sentences.
Let’s take them one section at a time.
The beginning of the 2nd Commandment says:
You shall have no other gods beside Me.
Isn’t that kinds of strange? The Torah acknowledges that other people may have other Gods. But for Jewish people we have only Adonai – that is our Hebrew name for God.
I actually like this part of the commandment because it shows that people are different and that there are many paths in life. So much fighting in the world has to do with people trying to be better than others and that’s true in religion as well – religions fighting against each other is a big part of human history.
But the Torah, here in the 10 Commandments, is unique.
God doesn’t say I’m the best, or try to prove why God is most powerful, or how God is going to defeat others gods,
God simply says,
I am the Jewish God and that means you and I belong together.
There is no room for other gods in our relationship – we are loyal to each other and that is essential to our relationship.
The second part of the 2nd Commandment says:
You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, or any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Wow – that’s a long way of saying – no pictures! It means that we can’t makes pictures, paintings, sculptures or other representations of what God looks like. No images at all.
Why is this important? I think it’s important because it helps us understand that God is not like people – God looks and sounds and feels different to each of us. If we had pictures or images, we might say to ourselves, hey that doesn’t look like my god and feel alienated.
So God’s image is kept private and individual for each of us.
And now, here is the last part of Commandment #2
You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I, the Lord Your God, am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the parents upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
Well that’s also surprising. God is jealous? Isn’t God supposed to be perfect and without and character flaws? Why would the Torah tell us that God is jealous?
That’s a tougher one for me. But here’s my interpretation.
I think that the 10 Commandments are one of the first times the Jewish people and God are getting to acquainted. The Jewish people aren’t really sure who and what God is exactly. They don’t fullyunderstand God’s nature yet.
Kind of like we might have questions and curiosity, maybe even doubts about what God is and what we believe about God. The Israelites at the time of 10 commandments weren’t 100 percent sure what they were dealing with.
So God is telling them right from the start that God is powerful and can bring on punishments. The 2nd commandment says that faith in God is a serious matter. Not something to take lightly or mess around with.
Even though we can ask questions and be curious about God, and we are fully entitled to our own beliefs, faith in God is matters and is something we do need to take seriously.
So that’s an introduction to Commandment #2.
We Jews have a special loyalty to Adonai, our Jewish God,
no pictures of God,
and this faith thing – figuring out our relationship to God, what we believe, what we question and what we’re sure of,
what brings comfort to us about God and even what scares us about God –
That’s a really important aspect of being Jewish.
I hope you learned something new about the 10 Commandments and I hope to see you next time as we get to know Commandment #3.
Commandment #3 is a short one. It simply says:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Ok finally, something simple and straightforward. Don’t use God’s name in vain.
So what does that mean?
Even though this is a shorter commandment, there still is a lot going on here.
First, what is God’s name? Is it God – g-o-d in English
or Adonai in Hebrew or Elohim?
The Bible actually uses a lot of names for God- El Shaddai, El Elyon, Tzur, Tzvaot, Ya – so does this commandment mean we’re not supposed to say any of them?
And Second what does it mean to take God’s name in vain?
What is vain – meaning something wasteful – and what is not vain?
And lastly, why would this issue of how we use God’s name be so important to be included in this short list of the Ten Commandments? Aren’t there other mitzvah about giving tzedakah or taking care of the needy that might be more important than God’s name? Especially when we already have the first two commandments and about God – I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt and and #2 Have no other gods than me, and dont’ make images of me. Why do we need all these rules about how we deal with God and god’s name.
We find a lot of questions even in this short statement! That’s what Torah study is all about – looking at our text closely and really trying to get behind the words to the message.
Back to Commandment #3.
Here’s what I think: to me, this commandment is not so much about God’s name, it’s about using our words carefully. Say what we mean and mean what we say. We can talk about God, we can even use God’s name but it should be done with respect and care. God is not just a word we should toss around.
When speaking about God we need to pay attention and take caution. We don’t want God’s name (any of them) to become common or uninspiring. So we are commanded to use them sparingly and with intention.
Here’s another reason for this commandment – because God doens’t have a physical shape or image – God is not something we can physically see or feel, words are all we have. Words in a sense create God.
Just as God created the world by speaking – God said let there be light and there was light – words brought light into existence,in the same way, when we speak about God we are creating a reality for ourselves of what God is.
That’s why it’s so important, how we speak about god, what words we use to describe God and what names we use really matter because words are one of our main pathway for interacting with God. What we say becomes part of what we believe and understand about God. So every word matters.
One final idea … when we learn how to speak carefully about God, maybe that will trickle down to how we speak about others and even ourselves. Did you know in Jewish law we are not allowed to insult anyone including ourselves. Even our light way of saying things like, “Oh I’m not good at that,” or little digs we give ourselves, are not allowed in Jewish law.
Because language and how we use our words are really important parts of life.
We know how hurtful it is when a friend makes a comment, and then says “just kidding” or “I was joking.” the sting of those words is still there.
Commandment #3 teaches us that words are powerful. Words can heal or they can harm.
Starting with God but continuing to people and even to ourselves, this commandment reminds us to: Pay attention; it reminds us to think before we speak and it reminds us that words create reality.
When we call God by God’s many names we are bringing those many dimension even more into focus in our world.
When we insult God or use or words to hurt, then we are creating pain the world.
So simple little commandment #3,
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God’s in vain”
actually has a deep spiritual message.
I hope we can all keep that in mind and use our words with good intentions this week.
Commandment #4 – Shabbat
We’ve heard of Shabbat right? Challah and candles and some prayers – maybe a Bar Mitzvah or some services in our congregation.
Shabbat can be a sweet family and community time and hopefully a time when we can experience some personal peace and rejuvenation as well.
But Shabbat in the Torah was not about family or prayers or even candles and kiddush that we know today.
Shabbat from the Torah was this radical, revolutionary invention of REST – of taking a day off.
It’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have weekends or summer vacations or days off. But in ancient societies, TIME was governed partly by seasons and nature – if it was daylight there was work to be done outside.
And time was governed by the wealthy and the powerful. Regular people didn’t get to decide when they worked and when they didn’t. Regular people didn’t have control over their time. If a boss or a wealthy person told you to work you worked. And that was it.
The Torah introduces this revolutionary idea that every human being is entitled to a day of rest – whole day – what a gift!
The 4th commandment actually spells out all the categories of ppl who are included. Because we might think that Shabbat, a day of rest applies just to Jewish people, or just to people who own their own businesses but listen to what the Torah says:
you shall not do any manner of work, you
nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates;
Shabbat was a gift for everyone – men, women, children, servants, visitors, guests, even animals.
So why – why was this concept of rest of work so important that it’s here in the 10 commandments and why is it extended to all humanity and even some animals?
Because I think the Torah understood a very common challenge we face today.
Today when we get to know people in the adult world, mostly it’s about our work.
Oh I’m a rabbi, you’re a teacher, you’re a dentist, you’re this or a that.
We define so much of ourselves by our profession. And that’s not a terrible thing because most of us are proud of our professions and gain meaning from our work.
But the 4th Commandment is reminding us that we have an identity separate from our work. We’re not just what we do. We are a human being created in God’s image.
God rests so we too can and should rest.
This period of quarantine has been especially tough on so many levels – but for many people who are engrossed and defined by their work – It’s hard to feel productive and valuable when we’re not working.
The Torah helps us with that challenge.
Even before we were crazy modern people with work and families and errands and overpacked schedules – the Torah commanded rest.
It wasn’t really rest from “work” or busy – ness – it was rest from doing and it was freedom to govern our own time.
Shabbat was perhaps the original message to JUST BE.
Don’t do, don’t produce, don’t accomplish, just be.
And Shabbat was also an original statement that all lives matter and all lives are holy. On Shabbat we are all equal – free from the burdens of society that separate us and put us in categories. On Shabbat all human beings are God’s children.
So that’s Commandment #4!
Remember Shabbat and keep it holy!
I hope you can take this message of Shabbat of resting from productivity and being unified with all of God’s creation as some inspiration for your days ahead.
We’re going to look at commandment #5 today. This one you’ve probably heard of – maybe a lot! – as in if your Mom or Dad says – “Hey show some respect to your parents!”
Book of Exodus Chapter 20, verse 12 says:
Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.
Do you notice something unique about this commandment?
Unlike the others, this commandment is a deal between God and the Jewish people. Do this and God will do that. It’s a reward and punishment commandment. The reward is that we will have a long life in the Land of Israel and the punishment which is implied is that we will not.
So we can see that the commandment to honor our parents is given a special status.
And this commandment also mentions fathers and mothers. This is a clear statement that men and women are to be treated equally by their children.
So what does it mean to honor our parents? I bet most of us think that we do observe this commandment – at least most of the time.
But Judaism likes to get very specific.
The Talmud teaches us that honoring parents can be shown in several ways.
- Don’t sit in their place- place at table or favorite chair – respect that space.
Why does this matter?
It shows humility, that we are not our parents. They are older and wiser.
Parents deserve a set place without a worry that we will take it away or replace them.
Not sitting in their place shows that we pay attention to our parent’s habits and respect their desire to have a routine that gives them comfort.
- Don’t contradict parents in public
It is inevitable that we will disagree with our parents. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. But Judaism teaches a respectful way to do so. To discuss in private instead of public. To protect a parent’s honor we don’t contradict them in front of others. We let them have their say and share their opinions in public. And then in private in a constructive way, we bring up our disagreement.
We give parents the respect of being right and honoring their opinions in a public setting.
- Provide for their needs – food, drink, clothing, transportation – if they aren’t able to do so on their own.
This seems kind of obvious. But because families are complicated and parents and children don’t always get along, the Talmud reminds us that even if we disagree or have conflicts with our parents, the responsibility to make sure our parents are taken care of is still there.
Also importantly, the Rabbis are clear step parents are also included in this commandment to honor. With the exception of a parent who is violent or abusive, the mitzvah of honoring parents is owed to every parent whether we are close or not, whether we agree or get along or not.
- Lastly, the Talmud gives us one real thought provoking example of a son honoring his father.
It’s a story about a man named Dama ben Natima.
Dama owned some valuable jewels and one day, a buyer came to Dama as asked to purchase the jewels for 600,000 dinars (that was a lot of money in Dama’s time).
So Dama went to get the jewels, but to his surprise, his father had actually fallen asleep right on top of the chest where the jewels were kept.
And Dama refused to disturb his father. Even to make this big sale.
So this story is perhaps an exaggeration or perhaps a parable.
What would we disturb our parents for? How have we put our needs above our parents. Is our instinct always to get some benefit or some asset, that we simply move our parents aside?
Maybe Dama’s father would have been happy to have his sleep disturbed to earn a big sum of money, 600,000 for the jewels.
But we can see the point right? That honoring our parents is a serious mitzvah and not something we can throw off when it’s inconvenient.
So we’re here at the middle of the 10 commandments with commandment #5.
Think of the visual. Honor your father and mother sits at the bottom of the right side of the tablet. Its positioned together with the 4 first commandment about God and Shabbat.
This placement is also a reminder that honoring parents is a reflection of how we honor God.
When we honor our parents we honor God too.
So this week, if we’re blessed to have our parents, let’s make some extra efforts to show them respect. And if our parents have passed, let’s think back to times when the love and respect between us was powerful and inspiring.
Ok here we are at one short, to the point, commandment. Commandment #6 says: Lo tirtzach – Don’t murder.
We’ve heard of that one right?
Sometimes it’s translated at Don’t kill, but that’s incorrect. To be accurate, Lo Tirtzach means: “Don’t murder.”
So what does this commandment mean?
Well this is more complicated than it sounds.
Just as in American law we have distinct categories such as homicide, 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and so on Jewish law also has specific definitions about murder and killing.
There are some in Jewish law who say that this commandment refers to premeditated murder – meaning that premeditated killing is prohibited but not all manner of killing.
Self defense, killing in military situations, and accidental killings are in a different category than murder.
And there are others who say that this commandment presents the more global principle of not taking a life.
How are we to understand this commandment? And what can we learn from the fact that it’s not 100% clear what it means?
I think this commandment is an important example of Biblical interpretation and the value Judaism places on interpretation. Since the earliest translations to English by the King James Bible (1604) and before that in Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts, these simple two words have been debated.
And while for some it may be confusing, not to have a definite translation of what this Commandment means, in the Jewish world, this ambiguity is very common and actually a strength of our tradition.
What do I mean?
There is a difference between Torah and Jewish Law. This is a bigger discussion for another time – but Torah study, exploring the meaning and intent of the Torah text is not for the purpose of coming to a final ruling.
Torah study is about discussion, engagement and debate. It is meant to include different perspectives and values, different opinion. Torah study’s goal is to bring different philosophies to light – not necessarily to come to a definite answer.
This commandment does just that!
Perhaps Commandment #6 purpose is to bring us into conversation about the grey area of just vs unjust killing.
It asks us to look at the ideal -never taking a life – vs the practical – not taking a life unjustly.
To me, Commandment #6 is a case study in Torah study and spiritual wrestling between the ideal and the practical.
Whichever way we interpret the commandment itself, if we are studying seriously, we can sense the broader spiritual questions these two little words raise.
This commandment also exemplifies that Torha study is it’s own reward. We have legal codes and many volumes of legal debate in the Talmud that get into the nitty gritty of what is murder and what is killing and how to implement those definition in society.
But Toah study is not burdened with the practical. It’s goal is conversation, debate, disagreement and personal engagement.
Most of us hopefully do not need to be reminded not to murder. But in world as violent and unjust as our is … this commandment invites us to wrestle with some of the exact question we are facing in our world today – what constitutes a threat, what constitutes legitimate force, what is murder and what is self defense.
As it so often does, the Torah has precursors to the modern issues we struggle with.
Today we’re going to talk about Commandment #7, Lo Tinaf – You shall not commit adultery.
If you’re a young person, adultery might be a new word for you. Hopefully so!
Simply to explain – this commandment means that married people have to be faithful and loyal to each other.
Once a couple is committed to each other, that is a sacred bond of trust that should not be broken.
Breaking that trust by loving someone outside the marriage is against this commandment.
So what do we make of this commandment #7?
Honestly, I’ve really never given this commandment much thought. It seems kind of obvious, like don’t murder or don’t steal.
But the Torah doesn’t waste words, especially in the Ten Commandments. So this teaching of being faithful and loyal to our spouse must be pretty fundamental to Jewish life. It’s up there with Shabbat and honoring our parents.
Perhaps this commandment is here to teach us that Judaism values our family relationships. That marriage or loyal partnership is the foundation of the Jewish home and needs to be a solid relationship not only of love, but of trust and a deep sense that we are safe with our partner.
If we’re blessed with many years in life, our spouse will be likely be our longest meaningful relationship.
Inevitably marriages go through some ups and downs. Most relationships I know are not picture perfect.
But that foundation of trust and loyalty to each other is the foundation of the Jewish family. Holiness cannot thrive in a household of lying and cheating between spouses.
So while Judaism does not expect all couples to live happily ever after, divorce is allowed, once a marriage or partnership is established, faithfulness to each other is required.
And like all important things in life, this relationship requires work and attention.
Commandment #7 teaches us that the bond of marriage ranks as among the most important relationships in Jewish life. It is something precious and holy and should be protected just as we take care with our relationship with God, our parents, and even the day of Shabbat.
Commandment #7 also teaches us that Judaism cares about our real life.
To be a “good Jew” is not only about Jewish holidays and Shabbat and what kinds of foods to eat.
Judaism guides us to be careful about the ritual aspects of Judaism, but just as importantly Judaism doesn’t’ shy away from commanding us to be careful and caring with the real relationships in our daily lives.
That’s an introduction to Commandment #7.