Scene from the famous 1956 movie, The Ten Commandments. (Youtube) (Youtube)
Ten Commandments movie

This week’s Torah portion is “Yitro” (Exodus 18:1–20:23), and in it we read about the Ten Commandments.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

In this article we will discuss the Ten Commandments and the Revelation at Sinai. The problem is, however, is that there is so much to talk about and don’t know where to start!

Let’s begin with a brief refresher on what exactly the Ten Commandments are. It’s funny how often I come across people who mistakenly believe that “Do not lie” is one of the Ten Commandments. While lying is certainly bad, it is not on the Top Ten list! Let’s see:

– I am the Lord your G‑d. (Yes, this is the first commandment. A commandment to simply know that God exists);

– Have no other gods and do not make any graven images;

– Do not take the name of God in vain;

– Keep the Sabbath day holy;

– Honor your mother and father;

– Do not murder;

– Do not commit adultery;

– Do not steal;

– Do not bear false witnesses (yes…this is a form of lying but it refers to lying in court. It is not the source for the ban on lying in everyday speech); and

– Do not covet.

It all began on the morning of the 6th of Sivan (roughly early June) 50 days after the Jewish people left Egypt. The people awoke that morning to thunder and lightning and a powerful shofar blast. Mount Sinai. As they approached Mount Sinai, where they had been camped, they saw it was ablaze with a thick cloud at its peak, thunder and lightning. They were trembling in awe and fear. They were gathered at the foot of the mountain as Moses ascended alone to the top.

Contrary to widespread misconceptions, God did not say all Ten Commandments. He only said the first two. That’s right. Only the first two.  After God said the first commandment, all the Jews died from the holiness and intensity of God’s voice. God then brought them back to life. Then God gave the second commandment, and the same thing happened again. After being revived a second time, the people told God that it was enough, they didnt want to “risk it” anymore. Moses then became the intermediary who gave over the remaining eight commandments. We are told that the intensity was so great that the entire world heard the Revelation at Sinai.

There were a number of additional miracles that took place at the Revelation on Sinai. For example, we are told that the people “SAW” the thunder and “HEARD” the lightening. Seems odd because it is thunder that is HEARD and lightening that is SEEN. But here it was different…it was the reverse! A miracle of nature. This teaches us that the material and the spiritual became as one—there was no difference between them. Godliness, Creation, and national purpose all became clear.

Another miracle is that there was no echo to God’s voice. Echoes represent a barrier, a wall, and dead end. This teaches us that with God and Torah there are no limits.

Finally, we are told that the Ten Commandments were broadcast in every language known to man. This teaches us that God is accessible to all Jews and non-Jews.

So we see that although Charlton Heston might have us believe otherwise, the Ten Commandments were not given to Moses alone. It wasn’t a private party. Rather, the entire Jewish nation witnessed the Revelation and saw and heard what was going on. This is a very important point, and I’ll explain why.

Judaism is the only religion that claims that more than one person heard God give a Divine mission to a person or to a nation. In virtually every other religion, from the Sikhs to the Mormons, the founders of these religions claim that God spoke to them in private and gave them their mission. They then spent the rest of their lives convincing others that God had actually spoken to them and gave certain instructions.

Judaism rejects such a position. We believe that the legitimacy and authenticity of Judaism comes from the fact that the entire nation was a part of the revelation, not one, two, or 500 people. The entire nation witnessed it.

The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets, with five commandments appearing on each one. By the way, according to most Jewish scholars, the tablets were actually squares, with flat tops, unlike the tablets with rounded tops that are frequently depicted in movies and artwork. In addition to the commandments on the second tablet being much shorter in detail than those on the first tablet, it is also noted that the first tablet includes issues that pertain to the relationship between man and God while on the second tablet they pertain to the relationship between man and man.

It is explained that the reason for this is to teach us that our relationship between man and man is as important as the one between man and God. We should never believe that Judaism is merely about our worship of God or that our interactions with our fellow man are not subject to religious scrutiny. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, in many ways, how we behave towards our fellow man is more important to God than how we behave towards Him!

Two tablets, two types of commandments, one religion, One God.

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