On Shavuot we celebrate God giving us the Torah, represented by the Ten Commandments. We will explore them here through a broad lens, showing how they apply to our daily lives. We will focus on the First Commandment, the foundation, and the seven commandments phrased in the negative, which tell us what not to do, discussing both sides: the negative (avoiding what God hates) and the hidden side, the positive (doing what He loves).
For a discussion on the Fourth and Fifth Commandments – keeping Shabbat and honoring our parents – which are already phrased in the positive, please see my blog, yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.
The Ten Commandments start off utilizing this pattern of polar opposites. The First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God “(Exodus 20:2) is the positive formulation and the converse of the Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship.
In the First Commandment, God introduces Himself in order to have a relationship with us. Developing the relationship includes getting to know Him (Torah study), talking and listening to Him (prayer and observances), and helping His children (acts of kindness).
In excess, material goals and desires become modern day idols, compromising our relationship with God. Ask yourself, “Am I headed toward a closer relationship with God, or farther away? Which aspect of my connection with Him will I strengthen?”
The Talmud (Sotah 4b) teaches that arrogance is a form of idol worship – worshipping our egos. To counter this, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likkutei Maharan 10:5) advises drawing close to tzaddikim. Ask yourself, “Do I have a rabbi to whom I defer, listening to his instruction and reproof? If not, who are some possibilities, and how can I build a relationship with them?”
The Third Commandment: Prohibition of vain oaths with God’s name. This also includes any form of desecrating His name (chillul Hashem). The converse is sanctifying His name (kiddush Hashem). Ask yourself, “What can I do or refrain from doing to bring more esteem to my people and my God?”
The Sixth Commandment: Prohibition of murder. The Sages say that embarrassing a person is a form of murder. When we apologize after causing emotional pain, we invigorate a person, giving back the life we took. The converse of this commandment is to give life, and teach our children – especially by example – to care about God and His Torah.
In addition, did you ever notice that after giving someone a sincere compliment or encouragement, that person stands a little taller? You have just infused someone with life. Ask yourself, “Whom can I apologize to, or whom can I compliment? How can I be a better role model to my children?”
The Seventh Commandment: Prohibition of adultery. This also includes other forbidden relations. God calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) and we maintain our purity by avoiding forbidden behavior and thoughts. By sanctifying the most intimate act – through the laws of family purity – we bring holiness to our very core. Ask yourself, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more holiness to all areas of my life?”
The Eighth Commandment: Prohibition of stealing. Theft includes taking or damaging what is not ours, borrowing without permission, being late in agreed upon payments or holding on to something that does not belong to us. The converse is to be charitable and generous; not being petty and insisting on getting everything we might be entitled to.
There is tremendous satisfaction in being impeccably honest and knowing our integrity is not sullied by ill-gotten gains. When we do the right thing, as defined by Jewish law, regardless of whether anyone compels us to do so, we show God that His will is our primary focus. Ask yourself, “Did I acquire any of my possessions or financial gains through questionable means? Do I have anything I need to return, or payments to make, to restore my integrity?”
The Ninth Commandment: Prohibition of testifying falsely against each other. This also includes other forms of hurtful talk. The converse of this commandment is to be truthful and keep our word. The opposite of being against each other, is to avoid conflicts, when possible, by humbling ourselves; making the first gesture and giving in a little for the sake of peace.