It is amazing to me how 10 simple utterances could provide the basis for an entire civilization. And not only did they apply to the people then, but they do just as much for each and every one of us now. This is why on Shavuot, we listen to the Ten Commandments as they are read aloud. For these 10 concepts represent our foundation as a people.
While each commandment is worthy of its own individual explanation, there is a unique order in which they are conveyed, which carries a message that can help us to better understand our relationship to G‑d and to our fellow human beings.
There is a unique order in which they are conveyedThe Talmud explains that the first five commandments reflect our obligations to G‑d, while the last five instruct us regarding our relationships with other people. The medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra further explains that all the commandments can be put in one of three categories: emotion, speech and action. While the Ibn Ezra does not tell us which commandment fits into which grouping, Nechama Leibowitz, a brilliant 20th-century Israeli biblical scholar and commentator, provides us with a fascinating theory on the order of the Ten Commandments. According to Nechama (as she always referred to herself), the order of the Ten Commandments follows a triple chiastic structure using the three elements of emotion, speech and action.
The first two commandments, 1) Belief in G‑d and 2) Not worshipping other gods, both have to do with what is in our hearts, what we feel to be true. We are then told not to take G‑d’s name in vain; this is clearly speech. Keeping the Sabbath is all about action.
What about the fifth commandment, honoring one’s mother and father? Does this continue with action as the structure would suggest? Surprisingly, Jewish law defines respecting parents entirely through our actions toward them. We are not commanded to love our parents, but to honor them. This means behaving towards them in a respectful way: getting them water when they are thirsty, not sitting in their designated chair and standing when they enter a room (they may excuse us from this action). This commandment appears on the side of the tablets which is our obligation to G‑d, for if we disrespect our biological creators, we are in essence dismissing our Divine Creator. This commandment also serves as the perfect bridge to the commandments concerning our fellow human beings.
Beginning with the top of the second tablet we have: Murder, Adultery and Stealing, which are all sins completely mired in action. Bearing false witness against your neighbor is a transgression through speech. The final commandment, coveting that which belongs to your neighbor, is contained within one’s heart, one’s emotions.
While the pattern is chiastic in reference to the emotion, speech and action, we can see a parallel structure in regard to level of difficulty. Belief in G‑d seems relatively easy. In fact, recent polls show that 92 percvent of Americans believe in a higher power. Transforming that belief into our speech is more difficult. How often am I truly sincere in my prayers? How many times have I made bargains with G‑d if something will go my way, only to forget about it once I have achieved my goal?
Yet the most difficult of all is carrying out the actionsAnd yet, the most difficult of all is carrying out the actions. It is one thing to learn how a Jew should live according to the Torah, and something else altogether to implement that into one’s life. We may know in our heart that something is true, and yet not live our daily life in accordance with those feelings. This is the reason for that order. For if we can focus on strengthening our beliefs, then we will be better able to work on the sincerity in our speech, which will then lead to a stronger commitment in our ability to live our lives properly.
For me, on the human relationship side of the commandments, I find it pretty easy to refrain from killing people, cheating on my husband or stealing from others. Bearing false witness is another story. While I may not be lying in a court of law, little white lies seem to slip off my tongue with virtually no effort. Who is to say no one is harmed by any of my half-truths? Almost impossible is the last commandment, coveting. How can I possibly control my thoughts not to be jealous of other people?
Perhaps, with a stronger foundation in the first five commandments and my relationship to G‑d, this will carry through to my human relationships. Aren’t we all created in G‑d’s image? If I am more sincere in my actions towards G‑d, will I then nurture a greater appreciation for all He has given me and have less need to be jealous of others?
Through this literary analysis, we discover a very deep lesson from the Torah. When it comes to our relationship with G‑d, we need to work on our belief so that we can control our speech, which will help to refine our actions. This will then further control our actions towards other people, which will help to control our speech, as well as refine our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. This is what it is all about. We cannot respect and treat one another properly unless we respect and care about ourselves, and we can only truly care about ourselves when we recognize that we were created for a reason and that we need to have a relationship with our Creator.
So as we listen to the Ten Commandments again this year—and as we once again experience the revelation of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot—may we merit to truly internalize its message and use it to become that much closer with ourselves, our fellow human beings and our G‑d.