Photo Credit: Artist: Tissot, The Jewish Museum, New York
Moses and the Ten Commandments,

In the description of the giving of the Ten Commandments, in Parshas Ve’etchanan, we can learn a lot from not only what is said but how it is said.

Rashi points out that at Mount Sinai, God used a particular name to refer to Himself which is traditionally associated with God’s strict judgment, in the ideal world of truth.[1] According to Jewish tradition, this is an approach that God generally holds back – knowing that people are not able to survive on such a level. Yet there are times when such an approach needs to be communicated. According to Rashi, then, the giving of the Ten Statements was one of those times. That means that at Mount Sinai, the Jews were confronted with absolute expectations, not at all tempered by God’s usual trait of mercy.

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This is especially apparent in the second half of the Ten Commandments (or Statements, if we want to be more literal), starting with the commandment not to kill. R. Yoel bin Nun points out the absolute and completely unnuanced tone of the commandments contained in these five statements. He explains that as opposed to other negative commandments in the Torah where we find context and explanation, here there are just commands, plain and simple.[2] By and large each of these commands contains only two words. And in the context of the Jews standing in front of the God of true justice, anything more would be superfluous.

But even more than the content, the dramatic encounter with God, surrounded by thunder and fire was meant to make this a gripping experience that would once and for all cement the Jews’ awareness of God’s power, over them and over all mankind. Indeed, the rabbis claim that after the very first statement from God, the Jews all died from fright and needed to be resuscitated in order to hear the rest. And whether the rabbis meant this to be taken literally or not, it certainly illustrates the type of terror and trepidation that was likely an even more central part of this experience than the actual words heard by the people. (It is interesting to note that for Rambam, the words of the first two statements, which according to tradition are the only ones heard by the Jews[3], are only an articulation of what was understood by the experience itself.[4])

From all of the above, it becomes clear that the main point of the Ten Statements was not their content, much of which was already known. Indeed, most of the commandments included were already observed by the Jews either via the universal moral code (7 mitzvot B’nei Noach) or through specific traditions. Even the two commandments that are most outside of this rubric may also have been commanded between the time they left Egypt and when they reached Mount Sinai, as per one rabbinic tradition.[5] Instead of radically new content, what is at stake here is the complete acceptance of Jewish loyalty to God.

What we see then is an awe-inspiring encounter, between the One and Only God and the people He has selected, to represent His will in the world. Contrary to popular belief, the prime message of the encounter was not the ideas expressed but, rather, the utter inequity of the two parties involved.

{Adapted by Harry Glazer from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s upcoming book – Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy: Explorations in Text and Meaning}

[1] See Gur Aryeh on first verse of V’eara who points out that what is strange is the combination of this name together with the verb dibbur which is commonly associated with stern speech.

[2] Esert HaDiberot – Shneim Esar HaLavin, http://ybn.co.il/luach-shana-vechagim/ עשרת-הדיברות-שנים-עשר-הלאווין/

[3] Horiot 8a. According to Ramban, however, what is meant is that while all ten were heard, only the first two were understood without the mediation of Moshe.

[4] Moreh Nevukhim 2:33

[5] Sanhedrin 56b.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"