Shavuot: Judaism's 10 Commandments are still relevant today - opinion

As we celebrate Shavuot, and the 3,335th anniversary of receiving the Torah, I would like to revisit these commandments and examine their messages.

 THE CONSTRUCTIVE work we do during the week that activates and elevates our Shabbat experience (near Beit Shemesh). (photo credit: YAAKOV LEDERMAN/FLASH90)
THE CONSTRUCTIVE work we do during the week that activates and elevates our Shabbat experience (near Beit Shemesh).
(photo credit: YAAKOV LEDERMAN/FLASH90)

If the Torah/Bible is the best-selling book of all time – as Guinness says it is, with over five billion copies sold or distributed – then the 10 Commandments have to be its most well-known and outstanding chapter.

This original “Top 10” forms the basic foundation for civil law and social norms throughout history, without which communities, perhaps even whole civilizations, could not long survive.

For Jews in particular, the 10 Commandments embody the expansive code of belief and behavior by which we live our lives. There are exactly 620 letters in the text of these commandments, representing both the 613 mitzvot given by God exclusively to us, as well as the seven Noachide laws that apply to all humanity. In a sense, each letter “lights up” another Divine directive, which is then defined and articulated by the oral law, the Mishna and Gemara.

But are the 10 Commandments really relevant to today’s Jews? Do they “speak to us” – to use a phrase – or are they “old-school” heirlooms with little meaning for the modern man or woman?

As we celebrate Shavuot, and the 3,335th anniversary of receiving the Torah, I would like to revisit these commandments and examine their message.

‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

1. I am the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt.

Unlike the other commandments, this – at least on the surface – is neither a “do” or a “don’t.” It is a statement of faith, and if you don’t accept it, then you may as well stop here and not go any further, because the other statements will have no power or persuasion behind them.

Fortunately, belief in God, or a Higher Power, still unites as. More than three quarters of Jews – who may or may not subscribe to organized religion – believe that God exists in one form or another.

But it is the second part of this equation – the fact that God extricated us from slavery in Egypt – that offers perhaps the most potent proposition. It affirms that God “neither slumbers nor sleeps,” but is an aware, active, involved deity who cares deeply about us and is prepared to intervene in history when necessary. Yes, we have freedom of choice and the power to act, but at some point God is going to make His presence known and felt. And that is both frightening and reassuring at the same time, depending on what is going on in our lives.

2. You shall have no other gods before Me... to carve, create or count on; I remember the sins of the generations, but also show kindness to those who love Me and are loyal to me.

God, like the Israel Electric Corporation, wants no competition. He can handle it Himself, and is offended, to say the least, when we “shop” elsewhere.

This is a rough lesson we’ve learned over the centuries, as too often we fell prey to false gods that rarely failed to disappoint, if not destroy us. We would do well to ask ourselves, “What, or whom, do we really worship today?”

The good news is that there is a cosmic system of reward and punishment implied here. We believe that God meticulously records our actions, filters them through an intricate “grading” system that factors in all the variables, and then sees that justice is done – in the next world, if not in this one. For the countless cynics among us – and I definitely qualify – it provides endless patience and peace of mind believing that we – the good guys and the bad guys – will all get what’s coming to us eventually. As my dad always said, “Time wounds all heels.”

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.

As Billy Joel said, “Honesty is such a lonely word; everyone is so untrue.” And there’s a lot of truth to that, even regarding nonpoliticians. The first commandment given to a Jew (Abraham) was brit milah, circumcision. But the phrase literally translates as “the covenant of the word.” If we speak words of truth, the rabbis teach, then we will have law. And if we have fair law, we will have peace.

“Honesty is such a lonely word; everyone is so untrue.”

Billy Joel

It’s often been said that the Hebrew letters for falsehood, “sheker,” literally have no leg to stand on, while truth, “emet,” stands firmly on the ground. Every important relationship – from business to marriage to raising children – rests upon trust and truth.

4. Remember the day of Shabbat and make it holy.

Anyone who has experienced the joy of Shabbat needs no convincing that it is arguably the single most formative mitzvah we own.

But some may forget its adjoining clause, “Six days shall you work.” It is the constructive work we do during the week that activates and elevates our Shabbat experience. The physical rest and spiritual high we desperately seek in this frenzied existence of ours is directly connected to how much we manage to achieve in the days prior to the cessation of work.

5. Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be lengthened.

The principle of hakarat hatov – respect and gratitude for the good bestowed upon us – is high on the list of Jewish values. Caring for our parents and showing them the respect they deserve for having borne and raised us refines and defines our own character. But it also quite literally serves to extend our days; when our children see us taking care of our elderly parents, they will hopefully follow suit when we ourselves grow old.

6. Do not murder.

Judaism is a life-centered religion; each moment of life is of inestimable value. We neither seek death nor glorify it; mercy killing, in Halacha, is a contradiction in terms.

Yet we recognize that there are indeed times when taking another’s life is not only permissible but mandatory. That is why the commandment does not read, “You shall not kill.” Some people – terrorists, for example – forfeit their right to live, by seeking to take the lives of others.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

Your relationship with your spouse mirrors your relationship with God; it demands loyalty, fidelity and tolerance.

Like all personality traits, jealousy has its good side as well as its bad one; being true to the one who loves you is the “healthy cholesterol” of jealousy. Yes, biblically, multiple (female) partners may be allowed, yet all the polygamous relationships in the Torah are accompanied by strife and suffering. One God, one Torah, one spouse is the golden rule.

8. You shall not steal.

Theft can come in various forms: stealing someone else’s idea (copyright infringement) is rampant in the hi-tech world; excessive overcharging, even when legally permissible, is highway robbery; even stealing another’s time (is there any commodity more precious?!) or sleep is wrong.

Jewish law includes the sin of g’nayvat da’at,” misleading a person by word or deed, such as recommending an inferior restaurant just because you are a silent partner in it, or offering gifts to someone you know will not or cannot accept them.

9. You shall not bear false witness.

Unless required by law, slander against another person is among the sins most condemned by the sages. King Solomon wrote, “All the good deeds we may perform can be negated with just a slip of the tongue.” God therefore created two “gates” – our teeth and our lips – to keep the tongue at bay, causing us to think twice before speaking. In a world that thrives on gossip, it is increasingly difficult to master the fine art of silence and demonstrate the courage to hold back. Not everything that can be said should said.

“All the good deeds we may perform can be negated with just a slip of the tongue.”

King Solomon

10. You shall not covet.

Can God really command a person’s thoughts?! Yes, He can, and does, because the Torah means to teach us not only how to act, but also how to think. And this process begins by learning to accept, no, to rejoice in what we are given rather than desire what someone else has. Much too much of our time is spent lusting over what we don’t have, rather than embracing what we do possess.

The Talmud asserts, “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.” But the “his” here refers not to the person himself, but to the guy next door! Contentment comes to those who learn to live – and to think – within their means.

The 10 Commandments are referred to as “Aseret Hadibrot,” literally, the “10 Sayings.” They come to us in word form, but it is our challenge to turn those words into reality.

Chag Shavuot sameach! 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]