February 1st-2nd, 2002
20 Shevat, 5762
[I write this from the safety and freedom of my study, thank G-d, but my thoughts are with a fellow Jew who finds himself in peril and
captivity - Daniel Pearl, a 38 year-old American Jew and Wall Street Journal reporter currently being held by a radical Muslim group in Pakistan. I’m sure many of you are also concerned with his welfare. May the merit of our prayers and Torah study help secure his speedy release. As we say in the morning prayers on Monday and Thursday: "Our brothers, the entire family of Israel, who are delivered into distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or dry land—may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to release, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon—and let us say: Amen." (Artscroll Siddur)]
I tend to like beginnings and endings, but to be less excited about what’s in the middle.
Why this should be so--both for me, as well as for many others--is an interesting topic for reflection (or psychotherapy). Come to think of it, it also happens to be one of the central concerns of Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s extremely useful book on the ups and downs of spiritual life, Living Inspired. (Go buy it; I can assure you I’m not getting any commission for plugging it.)
In any case, my preference holds true even when it comes to studying the short series of verses that form the sacred centerpiece of this thoroughly amazing Torah portion--the Ten Commandments. For some reason, I gravitate to numbers One and Ten, the first and the last. I find them--and the relationship between them--more intriguing [I did not say, "important" or "authoritative"] than the rest of the Decalogue.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a whole lot that’s interesting to explore in Number Four, for instance ("Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy")…not to mention a world of blessing and exaltation in actually obeying the thing.
Number Five is certainly worth taking at least a look at ("Honor your father and mother")…and we can marvel at the nobility of the ideal even as we acknowledge how imperfectly many of us live it.
Six, Seven and Eight ("don’t kill," " don’t commit adultery," "don’t steal") are nothing to sneeze at. They form the very basis of a civilized social order…and I assert that if they were observed faithfully, with all their many ramifications as discussed in the Oral Law, the entire world would be completely transformed. A veritable moral revolution would occur. I’m reminded of what Gandhi reportedly said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: "I think it’s a wonderful idea." So, too, with these Commandments: C’mon, world, let’s just give ‘em a try!
But, after all is said and done, I still think One and Ten are the coolest. Perhaps because, in a certain sense, they are even more foundational than the others--as we’ll discuss below.
To refresh your memory, here they are. (Drum-roll, please.) Number One (Exodus: 20, 2): "I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery." Number 10 (Exodus: 20, 14): "You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow." (Artscroll translation.)
Many of the classical commentaries grapple with the question of Number One’s status: is it actually a (numbered) commandment, or merely the necessary philosophical basis (or prerequisite) of all that follow?
Maimonides (in Sefer Hamitzvos) writes that it is a
mitzvah itself: to have emunah (faith) in the existence of a Creator Who is the First Cause, bringing everything into existence. I said, "bringing," because
Maimonides actually uses the present tense ("Who brings into existence"), thereby conveying the important idea that G-d is not just the Creator in the past, but the Creator and Sustainer in the present--"infusing" life into His Creation every single second.
The commentaries also focus on why Hashem identifies Himself as the One Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, rather than mentioning what some would argue is the even more awesome distinction: the One Who created the heavens and the earth.
Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that it was the Exodus, with all its wonders and miracles, that formed the hard "evidence" for the Jewish people of the existence, omnipotence and Providential governance, of G-d. After all, the eye of no human being (Jew or Gentile) witnessed the first days of Creation…but the Jewish people witnessed the Exodus. We saw Egypt devastated by the plagues, saw how the waters of the Sea of Reeds divided for us, but then swept back down onto the pursuing Egyptian army.
The Exodus was the true basis for our acceptance of G-d’s Will and His commandments--a fact underscored by the addition of the extra phrase, "from the house of slavery." Not only did G-d show His love (and power) by taking us out of Egypt, but by redeeming us from slavery, He also won the right (as it were) to our allegiance. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, we owe our very "historical and social existence" to G-d: by giving to us, directly, the very right to our own persons and property, He became the One to Whom we should willingly dedicate our persons and property.
Implicit in the First Commandment, then, is the obligation of accepting G-d as Ruler of our actual lives! The Talmud explains that this commandment, in its essence, calls on us to accept "the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven." How very far this is from a merely theoretical "belief in G-d’s (abstract) existence," Hirsch beautifully points out. The commandment is not, "I Hashem, am your G-d," but rather, "I, Hashem, am to be your
G-d." Not the mere acknowledgment of the existence of G-d, but the acceptance of Him as MY "personal" G-d, the One who should direct my life and my actions.
"Not the fact that there is a G-d…but that this One, unique, true G-d, is to be
my G-d, that He created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads and
guides me… every present breath that I draw and every coming moment of my existence is
to be [acknowledged as] a direct gift of His Omnipotence and Love…" (Hirsch—Commentary on Exodus, p. 258)
Now, if we really internalize the message of Commandment # 1, and place it on our hearts always, it’s clear that # 10 would not even be a problem. To covet something that is not mine, I have to think (on some level) that I should have that something or that I am not complete without it. But if I truly believe that G-d is personally watching over and guiding me, and that He "has provided me my every need" (the text of one of the morning blessings)--meaning that He gives me all the tools and means to develop myself spiritually and, thereby, fulfill my own unique purpose in this world--why, then, I’m not going to look at my neighbor’s portion as even relevant to my own life. Why on earth would I covet what is not meant for me?
The profound Torah commentary, Bais HeLevi (written by the great 19th century Talmudist, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik), pursues a similar line of thought--though he focuses on the "fear of G-d" as a deterrent, while Hirsch (above) had emphasized the love of G-d. For the Bais HeLevi explains that Commandment # 10, "Don’t covet," is ultimately dependent on a person having yiras Hashem—a constant awe of G-d.
If I truly believe that the awesome Creator is watching over me, and that He sees everything (including the thoughts of my heart); and I truly believe that I will be called to give an accounting of my outer and inner life in this world…why, then, I’m not going to let covetousness, and lust for what’s forbidden, take deep root in my heart. (Nor, for that matter, will I easily stumble in any of the other transgressions of the Torah!)
He illustrates this beautifully. Imagine that you are possessed by a powerful lust for some physical pleasure, and you have set out on a wintry night to pursue it! Your desire is strong, and you can almost taste the delight so soon to be attained. As you hurry along, you suddenly lose your footing on the icy path, and are about to fall. AT THAT INSTANT, he writes, YOUR LUST HAS BEEN TOTALLY
NULLIFIED BY THE FEAR THAT YOU ARE GOING TO HURT YOURSELF. That is something G-d put in our nature, he writes: fear (especially a mortal one) removes the power of lust and covetousness from our hearts.
To put it in a more chilling modern context: You could be flirting with the stewardess, and imagining all sorts of scrumptious (illicit) scenarios. But when the captain announces that because of a bomb threat scrawled on the mirror of the rest room he is going to make an emergency landing at the nearest runway, your lust would likely be rather quickly chilled…at least until you’re safe on the ground! [Fanatical jihadniks, who positively lust for death and destruction itself, are something of an exception. But that’s a topic for another time.]
All we need in actuality is a little bit of yiras Hashem (fear of G-d), the Bais HeLevi writes, to effectively ward off coveting. And should we counter with exclamations of the great and irresistible power of our yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination), he assures us: if we awaken yiras Hashem in our hearts, the yetzer ha’ra can have no power over us. G-d fixed it as a law of nature that (real) fear will overcome lust.
Therefore, he concludes, our evil inclination can only triumph insofar as we allow ourselves to forget, or actively remove from our hearts, the fear and awe of G-d that is our greatest spiritual protection.
And this is just what G-d intended by making the Sinai experience itself so spectacular (thunder, lightning, mountain smoking, etc.). As Moshe tells the frightened Jewish people: "Do not fear [that you will actually die], for in order to elevate you has G-d come; so that awe of Him shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." (Exodus: 20, 17)
By internalizing the reality of the First Commandment--I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery--whose essence is awe and awareness of Hashem, we can be assured of keeping the Tenth. Keeping #10 fully (uprooting covetousness from our hearts) would go a long way towards eliminating much of the stealing, killing and adultery that goes on in the world. And wouldn’t that be nice?
May we all try to increase the awe of G-d on our faces…by studying, and pledging our supreme allegiance to, these wonderful 10
Commandments… and all the other 603 that branch off from them.
My new e-mail address is email@example.com
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