Exodus 18:1 to 20:23
The parsha opens with a meeting between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro. Moses tells Yitro how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The text tells us that Yitro has brought Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and their children so that they can rejoin Moses now that the Israelites are free of Egyptian rule. Yitro also makes an offering and sacrifices to God. Yitro also suggests that Moses delegate some of his responsibilities to ease the work load.
After Yitro departs, we read that three months after leaving Egypt the Israelites encamp at the foot of a mountain in the Wilderness of Sinai. It is here that Moses is called by God to receive the “Words” of God. The people were told that the mountain was a holy place and not to set foot upon it.
On the third day after arriving at this site “as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.” (Ex. 19:16-17) Moses went up the mountain and God spoke. Torah tells us that the words God spoke were those that have become know as the Ten Commandments. But, from reading the text, it is not clear what the people heard … It could have been thunder, the words of God, or a sound of God speaking to Moses…. Like many extraordinary events, upon review of accounts, what actually happened is not always clear.
Whether the events happened exactly as stated in Torah … or if they are partly factual or just a myth that has become a major part of our heritage, I can’t say. What is clear is that this event is one of the most important factors in the beliefs of the Israelite people.
Following are some of my comments regarding the words which we call the Ten Commandments:
First, the text does not call them the “Ten Commandments” at any time. The are referred to as devarim or words… the Ten Words. In ten statements, they provide a summary of the laws that God will be asking the people to follow. They do not take the form of specific laws…. They are general statements of what God demands…. Other than a promise that the people “may long endure on the land” if they honor one’s father and mother (Fifth Commandment) there are no actual rewards or punishments associated with the commandments. These “Ten Words” could be seen as a preamble to the laws that are presented throughout the rest of Torah.
The format of two tablets seems to indicate that these are two groups of laws…. The tablet on the left states the laws relating to God and mankind’s relationship to God. The first three directly relate to God. The fourth “word” commands us to “remember” the Sabbath day. In the Deuteronomy version of these “words” we are told to “observe” the Sabbath. In either case, this is the only ritual observance commanded in these words.
The fifth commandment tells us to honor our fathers and mothers. While not directly related to God… one must consider that education of children was a responsibility of the parents. Public education was not normal in biblical times. So the continuation of religious education… and of the religion itself … was a responsibility of the parents. As a result, this commandment gave added importance to the parent’s teachings … both religious and secular… thus, earning a place for this commandment on the left tablet.
The right tablet contains the laws relating to mankind’s treatment of others. These words indicated what must be done by the people to create the world God desired.
This division brings the words of Genesis to mind. “God now said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, and let them hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth.’” (Gen. 1:26) And now through these “Ten Words” we see that man has been commanded to enter into a partnership with God. Man was cast in the image of God with a vital function…. God creates the world and all it contains … now and in future times… God created the Shabbat … And through the events told in the Book of Exodus, God is creating the Israelite people. (The left tablet)
God then commands mankind to maintain and improve the world. This task is to be fulfilled through the commands presented on the right tablet.
These “Ten Words” serve as a preamble to the rest of Torah. In future weeks we will discover the laws God has commanded… We will discover how these laws help us to envision a world where the world of God is separated from the world of the secular …. We will learn the laws that act to help mankind create the better world that God desires…. A world that is envisioned through Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).
We will see how man (created in the image of God) will work with the Eternal – in partnership – to create the world envisioned by God…. God creates; mankind maintains and repairs all God had created.
Ten Commandment photo from Wikimedia Commons file:Vitrail de synagogue-Musée alsacien de Strasbourg.jpg