Explaining the Commandments
The Torah teaches that “you shall count for yourselves from the day after the holiday ….seven complete weeks until the day after the seventh week…. (Leviticus i.e. Vayikrah 23:15-16.) The reason for this count, known as the Omer, is that the Holy Day of Shavuot is celebrated on the 50th day after Pesach or Passover. Although few Jews know this, Shavuot is the day on which the Ten Commandments were given the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.
It is therefore reasonable to once more review the Ten Commandments, as we call them in English. The Torah calls them “the ten words” and they appear twice in the Five Books of Moses, i.e. in Shemoth (Exodus) 20:1-14 and in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5:6-18. Please note that the Deuteronomy version of the fourth commandment which deals with Shabbat differs from the Exodus version.
Over forty years ago, Rabbi Isaac Klein, wrote a book entitled The Ten Commandments in a Changing World. Rabbi Klein was a great scholar and the author of A Guide to Jewish Practice, which is the definitive guide to practicing Judaism in America in the same sense as the Shulchan Aruch or Set Table was the guide to Jewish practice in earlier centuries. That book was written in the 1560’s by Rabbi Joseph Karo of Safed in Israel and later augmented by Rabbi Moshe Isserls of Cracow.
Let us then take a look at Rabbi Klein’s book, written in 1963. With reference to the first commandment which reads: “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” Rabbi Klein concludes that it was the unique contribution of Israel to the world to view God as a God of Justice. This concept did not exist until we Jews delivered it to the world, which still resists its implications to this day.
The second commandment states, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Rabbi Klein comments that our primary loyalty must be to God and adds, “let us avoid making religion a cold lifeless routine.”
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” That is the third commandment. This is interpreted to mean the prohibition against false oaths together with the requirement to tell the truth at all times.
“Remember the Sabbath day and kept it holy.” So says the fourth commandment, which is interpreted by Rabbi Klein as he wrote: “By the wholesale desecration of the Sabbath we have lost one of the mightiest fortresses that the Jewish people had.” Rabbi Klein goes on to say that the Sabbath is not only a religious institution, but also a great social program in that the idea of the Sabbath has limited the hours we work either for others or for ourselves. In the ancient world, and in our own, there are those who worked or work every day without cessation. That type of overwork exists today also. Therefore, keep the Shabbat and rescue yourself from slavery by observing the Shabbat. Go to the “shul” of your choice. Meet your friends and forget about business one day a week.
The fifth commandment is the only commandment which promises the observer a reward. “Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.” This commandment, comments Rabbi Klein, is directly related to the fourth commandment because those who honor the Sabbath also honor their parents. Consider this. Have Shabbat dinner together every Friday night so that grandparents and children and grandchildren see each other at least once a week and eat together even as we rush around to work, to school and to so many activities from Sunday through Thursday that we hardly know the family any more. Of course, honoring one’s parents has a great reward. It teaches our own children to honor us. In short, do not throw the “old folks” into a nursing home. Talk to them and make them part of your life. Have you ever noticed that at social functions the “old” are ignored while the “young” talk only to the “young”? Tough age segregation is the rule in this country so that the “old” are treated like inanimate objects. Even at “shivah” visits the widow is generally ignored while the visitors in the crowd talk only to each other.
The sixth commandment tells us “You shall not murder.” Rabbi Klein comments that respect for human life is foremost in Judaism. Not only may we not murder another human being, we may not commit suicide, for that too is murder. Rabbit Klein also comments that exploiting the lives of others for our profit in industry is murder and that we must refrain from the diminution of life in all circumstances.
We now come to adultery. This is a widespread sin among us. It is the principal cause of divorce. It is a nightmare for the children of the adulterers. It leads to endless pain and emotional upheaval. Rabbi Klein warns against marrying for money or on impulse. Most important, says Rabbi Klein, is that the family is the cornerstone of civilization. Ask yourself this: “Is it in the interest of the American people that one third of our children are born to a single mother each year?” Divorce, desertion, children who don’t have a father, disease, emotional distress and a huge bill delivered to the taxpayer every year are all associated with adultery.
Commandment number eight tells us, “You shall not steal”. Rabbi Klein shows that stealing does not only imply taking someone else’s property. It also includes stealing ideas, and stealing the other person's identity. Rabbi Klein shows that God is the owner of all we possess and that therefore we must contribute to the community because that which we own is in the end not ours to keep. Even Bill Gates cannot live forever and therefore the rich owe the community part of what they have. Here we also comment that the eighth commandment supports the capitalist system because it implies that we own that which we earned. Earnings are only possible where private property exists and never in a police state where the government owns everything.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” That is the ninth commandment. Rabbi Klein comments that we Jews have been the victims of those who violate the 9th Commandment every day. The liars say that “the Jews have all the money.” The liars say that “the Jews control the world.” The liars say that “the Jews stole the land of the non-existent ‘Palestinians”. In short, the anti-Jewish haters have spent years and centuries bearing false witness against us. Even as we write these words, the Arab propagandists and their friend Kerry pretend that all the world’s ills come from Israel. Yet Israel, denounced by the so-called United Nations day after day, is the direct victim of their neighbors who bear false witness against us, the Children of Israel, day after day, in all the media available to them.
Finally, the tenth commandment teaches us not to be envious of the possessions of our neighbors. “You shall not covet.” Rabbi Klein gives numerous examples of envy and resentment against the possessions of others. Resentment against achievement is a common form of violation of the tenth commandment. I have repeatedly heard people claim that the author of numerous books” ….did not write 14 books, he wrote one book fourteen times.” Or, “he succeeded in business only because he is a crook,” etc. etc. Envy, jealousy, resentment, it is all forbidden us.
Rabbi Klein concludes his book with the hope that whole world will accept the Decalogue as a universal code. It hasn’t happened yet. The Muslim world is devoid of all that the Ten Commandments teach. Yet, there is hope that this Shavuot, on Wednesday and Thursday, May 26 and 27, we, who gave mankind the very basis of a decent life, will remember this most important day in the history of Israel and of mankind.