Take two tablets!~

The Ten Commandments contain two parts that are ultimately one.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
In a religion so obsessed with the oneness of God, it is surprising how frequently and centrally we encounter the number two. And it may be that this is what led to the old joke where God asks Moses if he wants the tablet containing the Ten Commandments. Moses asks how much it costs, and when God tells him that it is free, he jumps at the opportunity, immediately blurting out, “I’ll take two!”
In fact, there is a better reason why two tablets were given and, as with many such works, the key to what’s out - side is actually what’s inside. There are really two parts to the Ten Commandments (presented in the Va’ethanan Torah portion for the second time), the first part likely to have been on one tablet and the second part on the other.
Although there are actually several distinctions between the first and second parts, the main distinction – according to Ramban and many others – is that the first deals with relations between man and God, whereas the second deals with those between man and man. On the first, we are reminded of the existential debt the Jewish people owe to God, which brings with it an expectation of absolute allegiance and obedience. On the second, the focus seems to be completely different. There we are brought back to the human plane and are told of the need to respect the inviolability of others, their property and their relationships.
Given that the entire backdrop and content of the Ten Commandments show it to be primarily a swearing of allegiance by the Jews toward God, it is quite remarkable that fully half of the document (conceptually speaking) is given over to how God expects us to treat our fellow man.
And if this balance would surprise us in the basic law of a human king, it should strike as even stranger coming from the Master of the Universe himself. No doubt, were we to have constructed the Ten Commandments, we would likely have set them up quite differently. And it is precisely because it defies our expectations that we must try to understand why it is otherwise.
The first step to comprehension here is the realization that we are looking at two parts that are ultimately one – though there are two separate tablets, they are first and foremost one legislative entity between man and God. That means that all Ten Commandments are ultimately related to the service of God. Of course, that leads us back to a question: Why speak about interpersonal ethics here?
In fact, the question is actually the answer. A strong statement is being made that God cares as much about how people behave toward each other as he does how they behave toward him. And that is why the Jewish tradition compares God not only to a sovereign but also to a father.
For what sovereign would really care as much about how others were treated as about how he, himself, was treated? But not so with a father – a father generally does care at least as much about his son or daughter as about himself. The metaphor is particularly apt, for a child is not only part of his parents’ household. He is also created by them in their image, as well as being loved and cherished by them.
This notion, implanted as it is in the Ten Commandments, led the rabbis to make some daring statements about the centrality of our duties to each other – even when contrasted with our fealty to God. Hence, when Abraham is speaking to God, the rabbis understand that he appropriately interrupted his interview to tend to apparently human guests. Likewise, they detect a hint in the words of Jeremiah that suggests that God allows his own honor to take second place to the carrying out of his commandments.
As Jews, then, it is important to remember the ostensibly unusual orientation God provides in the Ten Statements. On the one hand, he expects absolute loyalty and dedication to him. On the other hand, precisely because of that loyalty, he expects us to treat his “children” with the highest standard of respect. Not doing so is not only an ethical failing; it is an act of insubordination toward the very God that demands our allegiance.
Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is associate editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly and the author of three books of contemporary Torah commentary, with another forthcoming on Deuteronomy.