The Ten Commandments: The Divine Lawgiver
What is God?
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There is a lot more to the Ten Commandments narrative than just ten commandments. It all starts with encampment at the Sinai wilderness in the third month (roughly the end of the spring). The entire 19th chapter of Exodus is devoted to the buildup preparations leading to the great moment. Moshe is constantly ascending and descending from the mountain serving the unlikely role of a messenger between Hashem and the Israelites. The first message that Moshe is to convey is crucial: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt, and I carried you on the wings of eagles, and I brought you to Me. And now, if you listen to My voice and hold to My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure among the nations, for the entire world is mine. And you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – these are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites’ (v. 4-6).
The people responded that they would indeed uphold the covenant, but a series of restrictions are imposed around the mountain. Nobody is to come near the mountain. Finally, the moment of truth: ‘And Elohim spoke all these words saying: I am Hashem, your God, who took you from the land of Egypt, from slavery. There shall not be for you other deities in My presence…For I am Hashem, your God, a jealous God, who visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third or fourth generation…’ (20:1-3, 5). Following the Decalogue, in which ‘All the people saw the thunder and the flames and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and they saw and they trembled and stood from a distance.' Finally it is over, but the echo resounds forever.
The word ‘covenant’ comes up quite a bit in the Torah. Abraham made a few of these, Jacob had a couple, and the Israelites seem to have one or another going on almost all through the Chumash. This one here may be the most important. It is the covenant concerning the Ten Commandments. A covenant is a two-sided deal. Each side commits itself to do something, provided the other sticks to their part of the bargain. If the Israelites obeyed to the word of God, they would become for God ‘a treasure among the nations, for the whole world is mine’. It is a curious thing – just by sticking to a few laws they earn this eternal status of being God’s treasure. This is the ‘chosen people’ line in its original form. What’s the big deal about following to these laws?
We must also ask about the commandments themselves. Are they equally important or are some more fundamental than the others? Were they all heard directly from Hashem’s voice, or were they heard through some intermediary? If that first statement is a commandment, what exactly is it commanding? If it isn’t a commandment, what is it doing there? Then there is what is by now an old question: what image of God is presented in the Ten Commandments?
That first commandment is pretty interesting, if indeed it is a commandment. It is simply Elohim stating in first person, ‘I am Hashem, your God’, and then stating what He did to deserve acknowledgment of that claim. The second commandment, if it is indeed number two, is also in the first person: ‘You shall not have any other gods in My presence’. It is not until the third commandment, to not take the name of Hashem in vain, that we see things written in third person. From then on, anytime Hashem’s name is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, it is in the third person.
It seems that this first commandment is a statement of fact that is only a commandment when combined with the second commandment. ‘I am Hashem, your God…Do not have any other gods in My presence’. The traditional Jewish delineating of the verses actually bears this out. These two ‘commandments are actually one statement. Indeed, in some versions they are the same verse. It is Hashem’s declaration to the Israelites of the His absolute centrality to their existence as a nation, plus the requirement that there could be no other deity in their collective destiny. From this point on, their destiny as a nation would be under the absolute guidance of their personal God, Hashem. This was the covenant. Moshe, as important as he was, was distinctly on the human side of the covenant and not the God side.
This covenental relationship would become extremely special, unique to the Israelites among the nations of the world. Other nations would have their gods – deities that had specific functions in running the world in one way or another, but they would not intervene in the personal lives of their adherents. They were more like miniature versions of Elohim – running their little fiefdoms through the whims of limited destiny. The Israelite angle would be completely different. It was Hashem, working with and directly entering into the mind of the each individual, who would be the ultimate Decider of their individual and collective fate.
This was enshrined as a law, a commandment. There could be no room for other gods in this system. This was highly unusual at the time. In fact, it was revolutionary. This covenant was an almost reciprocal arrangement between God and man – ‘you do your part and I’ll do mine. But your part means an enormous amount to Me. For this reason I am proclaiming it in first person. My influence on you and your dedication to Me will create a relationship that produces the equivalent of the human emotion of jealousy. I cannot abide by you giving any of your precious supply of belief and faith to any deity other than Myself’.
It might seem hard for us to understand why something like this had to be commanded to begin with. Isn’t this the basic nature of a man-god relationship? The answer to this question, perhaps, is that this is where it all started. It was precisely in this covenant that this relationship began. Hashem had earned this right through intervention in the affairs of the world and the creation of the Israelite nation. They would now have to reciprocate by maintaining an unprecedented level of loyalty to their deity.
The other commandments, even one as important as Shabbat, are stated in third person. They are all important. Without them, a society cannot be built around personal morality and collective dedication to a common faith. They are the meat and potatoes that such a society is built around. But they aren’t the relationship itself. They are absolutely essential to individual and collective harmony and dedication to fulfilling their end of the covenant, but they are not the core of the covenant. That is only one statement – I, and I alone, am your God. This essential relationship expresses the very purpose of human existence. It is to live one’s life with an awareness of one’s Source. The rest is laws. They make it work. But this is the core. It isn’t a commandment, it is a covenant.
This was a watershed moment in human history. This had never happened before and likely never happened again. The group to whom this covenant was offered was to be unique in human annals, perhaps respected, perhaps resented, perhaps held to a higher standard, and perhaps reviled for not meeting that standard. But in some way, they would be a treasure to Hashem. If they upheld their end of the covenant, they would inspire others that it was possible. The earth belongs to Hashem. All people and all things are precious creations. They are all important and vital. Perhaps one group can demonstrate that creations can reciprocate with their Creator. If they succeed, they would truly be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.
The uniqueness of this moment cannot be overemphasized. The bells and the whistles, the smoke and the fire, were needed because human beings have to stand in awe every once in a while. They have to sense that there are hugely important events in their lives and in their history. They have to be able to acknowledge those pivotal stages in their development as individuals, as groups, as nations, as a species, and as creations. To imbibe the significance of these moments may require fear and awe. It may scare the hell out of people. It may make them never want to experience that moment again. But it will never be forgotten.
Hashem is the Divine Lawgiver. The individual laws themselves may seem expendable depending on the time and place that one is living, but the Law is eternal. There has to be a relationship between the Creator and the created. It has to be a covenant to be honored by both sides. Hashem, the Lawgiver, is the other side of the covenant. As difficult as it may be to be believed, God needs us as much as we need God. God needs to give these laws and to have this relationship with a creation that can understand that need. We need God in order to exist and in order to appreciate the unfathomable awe of existence. We need each other.
Perceiving the Image
This is the image that we encounter when we confront the somewhat strange experience of moral and spiritual obligation. It may not be the most popular of experiences in the 21st century, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. Human beings, almost despite themselves, crave this experience. We all want to know that we have a purpose in life. We all want to feel our own worth as individuals and in relation to others. We want to believe that we play some part in preserving the beauty of the world and the precious nature of nature. We also, though this may be difficult at times, want to be good. These feelings, these desires, these needs, are the spiritual equivalent of signing a contract. They are the result of our being spiritually committed to creating something worthwhile of ourselves, of reciprocating to God for having created us.
It is easy to understand why people may want to shun this experience. Skeptics may find themselves despising it and pretending that it is imaginary. They don’t want some Divine Lawgiver looking over their shoulder and breathing down their necks all the time, or even any of the time. They want to do as they damn well please. They never signed onto any deal, so insinuating that such a deal took place at some point in the distant past is not their problem. It may be the problem of those who believe such moral nonsense and religious claptrap, but it isn’t their problem. But shunning the experience can never shut out the feelings and the desires. There will always be a restless urge to rise to the moment, to be more, to live up to those obligations.
This is not feel good spirituality. This is hard core morality and put-up-or-shut-up commitment. This is the traditionalist’s moment of glory. That moment at Mt. Sinai, that epiphany of God telling us the basic laws of life and the fundamental relationship that could be, did indeed happen. It had a little smoke and fire and a healthy supply of trembling. It induced feelings of fright in addition to awe. The Divine Lawgiver is an awesome image - one that scares us into paying attention. We perceive that image every time we sense a need to be the person we know that we could and should be. The voice of that image may no longer be audible or visible or palpable from some mountain in the desert, but it echoes in our minds to this day.
It is both strange and fascinating that such a powerful feeling could have been captured and imbibed at one moment in human history. Was this really the way things happened?
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