Exodus 18-1 to 20:11 – Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Israelites promised to follow these commandments. Talmud re-interprets the second commandment providing added meaning to how we should follow God and Torah’s commandments.
The book of Exodus, and maybe even Torah itself, reaches a climax with this week’s reading. Before all of the plagues of Egypt, Moses asked permission for the people to worship the Eternal. In this week’s reading they have finally arrived at Mt. Sinai to worship their God.
But, this contact with God is even more important because it is at Mt. Sinai that the Eternal reveals his presence to all the Israelites and makes a covenant with them. This covenant takes the form of the Ten Commandments and the laws that follow. In many ways the rest of Torah just continues to elaborate on these words. This covenant is the climax of the Torah story … and forms the central belief of Judaism
This writer see the Commandments as an overview of the laws that follow … the laws which the Israelites have promised to fulfill. The Commandments provide direction … and the following laws provide specific instructions, punishments, and rewards.
Even though the Ten Commandments do not go into great detail; for the most part, their intent is very clear…. Keep the Sabbath… Honor your parents… Do not murder, steal or commit adultery… Do not bear false witness against your neighbor… Do not covet your neighbor’s possessions.
But, the first two commandments raise some questions…….. “I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2) This reads more like a statement, than a command. But, in fact when repeated by the people, it affirms that the Eternal is the God of the Israelites. There may be other gods for other people, but for the Israelites, the Eternal is their God. And this God is responsible for their freedom from Egypt. This freedom was not the result of the actions of Moses or Aaron, or any other group of people. The freedom was the result of divine intervention. This act of bringing the people out of Egypt … the most powerful nation at the time … proved the power of the Eternal over both Egypt and its gods.
The second commandment: “You shall have no other gods besides Me…” (Ex. 20:3) seems to be easily understood. In our modern Judea-Christian world, there are no other gods…. Or are there?
The Talmud interprets this commandment as follows: Torah is not warning us against alien or pagan deities; most people at that time – and in the present – see the Eternal as the only God. But, rather it sees the true source of idolatry as man’s own arrogance and pride. This pride results in a person taking him or herself too seriously. They feel that others owe them recognition and praise.
Ramban (Nachmanides – 12th Century C.E.) saw these feelings resulting from one’s perceived intelligence, wealth, or power. People may think that their success is totally self made… without the help of others or the Eternal. They may feel that these qualities are the result of their own efforts and others should recognize their superiority. In other words, the success is self-created. While in fact, without the assistance of the Eternal, the community in which they live, and the help of others, this power would not be possible.
Ramban see all that is on Earth coming from the Eternal. He sees that man’s wisdom can be taken away in old age… riches can disappear at any time… and good looks are only a perception. When a person realizes that all these traits are God-given and can be taken away at any time, one becomes humble. And with this humility comes a greater respect for the Eternal. (Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, A Letter for the Ages, p. 65. The book is based on a letter Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote to his son in 1195 C.E.)
After reading this material, this writer sees the second commandment differently. . Yes, most of us realize that the Eternal as the only god. But, do we see this God as the ultimate power in our lives? The “gods” we worship may not be the Eternal. Our successes – or failures – are not totally the result of our own efforts, or those of a specific cause, or organization….. We must realize that the Eternal, and the efforts of others, have a major influence on our lives. With this realization comes humility. And with this humility comes the realization that our success come from forces outside of ourselves… that of other people, other material factors….. and ultimately the Eternal. This is the message of the second commandment.