Parashat Yitro: Right and wrong

Without analyzing each of the commandments separately, we can understand something profound tracing the motion from God to neighbor.

REMBRANDT'S MOSES with the Ten Commandments (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/GOOGLE ART PROJECT)
REMBRANDT'S MOSES with the Ten Commandments
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/GOOGLE ART PROJECT)

Psychologically we are predisposed to pay close attention to beginnings and endings.

Origin stories are often seen as the keys to people’s lives. And psychological research has often shown that how something ends – whether an ordeal or a joyous occasion – has a greater impact than other features of the experience.

So what begins and ends the most significant event in the history of Israel?

God begins the Ten Commandments with “Anochi,” “I am.” There is a discussion among the commentators as to whether this constitutes a declaration or a commandment. Abarbanel, the great Spanish sage, declares that it is a preamble, making clear to the Israelites Who was speaking to them. Rambam, however, insists that it is a commandment, a mitzvah, the mitzvah of belief in one God.

The Israelites had seen God’s wonders enacted in Egypt, but they had not “met” God. Now, at the moment of revelation, the voice which overawed them comes from the sky and creates the frame for everything that will follow. The “I” of God is the opening of the Ten Commandments.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

How does the revelation conclude? The last commandment concerns coveting. The final words are “that belong to your neighbor.” Therefore, the first word is “I am,” and the final word is “neighbor.”

Without analyzing each of the commandments separately, we can understand something profound tracing the motion from God to neighbor. It is the movement, known to us in a very different sense, from the greatest generality to the most particular specific – rather like one of those shots that open a movie, moving from far above the earth and finally landing in someone’s kitchen. We thought we were dwelling in the empyrean, and we find ourselves at the dinner table.

Several years ago, in my first debate with writer Christopher Hitchens, he made fun of the fact that Judaism believed that we could not know that murder is wrong until God came down at Sinai and told us so.

Of course, this is not at all the case. I pointed out that the Torah itself never makes that assumption. Indeed, it is clear that Cain’s killing Abel, long before the revelation at Sinai, is not only considered wrong, but Cain is assumed to know that it is wrong. No one believed that humanity was only waiting for the theophany to be told that one should not steal, or murder, or commit adultery.

If the Ten Commandments were not designed to tell us something new about morality, then what was the point? Perhaps we would not have observed Shabbat, but did the Jewish people need to be told that murder was forbidden?

We return to the first and last words, which begin with God and end with one another. The message is that these laws are woven into the fabric of the universe. They are the will of the Creator, not the arbitrary decision of a jurist or the law of social cohesion. The Ten Commandments are less content than context – these fundamental principles are the essential attributes of the world as designed by God. You can violate them, but you cannot change them.

In the pagan world people were concerned if they offended the gods. In Homer it is the gods whose feelings must be managed. The Ten Commandments announce to Israel, and through them to humanity, that how one treats a neighbor is of concern to the Author of all.

The debate over objective versus subjective morality is ramified and never-ending. We are all aware that moral standards change, sometimes radically, in the course of history. We abhor things today – slavery, child labor – that were once considered normative. The natural result of human spiritual growth for many is to conclude that there is no standard, no “good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet forlornly declares. The revelation at Sinai makes clear: there is a right and a wrong.

How we treat each other matters, and not only to one another, but also to the One who created us, for we are all children of God. ■

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.