פרשת ואתחנן, תש״פ
Parshat Va'et'hanan, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, August 1st, 2020
The Big Ten: Distinctly Intuitive, Distinctly Influential
When I ask a child how many commandments exist in the Jewish tradition, what number do you think I hear most? (10!) When we think about commandments, the first ones that often come to mind are the Ten we will read tomorrow morning. Even if we had never stepped foot in a synagogue or a church, if we had never been to religious school, we would know them. They show up in movies, stories, and artwork of all genres. BUT we know that in the Jewish tradition, we have far more than just those Ten Commandments. Why, then, are they so central, so well known?
Throughout Parashat Va’ethanan, we are instructed that the commandments and teachings given to us throughout the Torah are words by which “to live.” In Deuteronomy, chapter 4, verse 1, we hear “Now, Israel, listen to the laws and statutes that I am teaching you to do so that you will live…”. Chapter 4, verse 4: “And y’all who cling to Adonai your God, all of you are living today.” And so on, throughout our parashah. Tomorrow, I’ll challenge you to count how many times you see words relating to survival or life while Rabbi Feivel reads.
While these references to life and living refer to the entire body of mitzvot, I believe that they surround the Ten Commandments as a signal that these commandments are both distinctly intuitive and distinctly influential on our quality of life.
“I am Adonai your God,” reminds us of the interconnected nature of everything in our universe. The Medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra speaks of scientists knowing this idea intuitively, as their jobs revolve around finding those connections. When we hear that idea - I am Adonai your God; we know that there is an order to this world from which we can grow and learn, personally and professionally. No matter our specific theological concept of God, that reality that there is something that pulls us all together gives us a source for seeking knowledge, for seeking relationships, and ultimately, for getting us out of bed in the morning to discover even more.
When we are instructed not to worship other gods, we are steered away from obsession. Commentators throughout the centuries have expanded idol worship to include worship of famous figures, of status, of nation-state, and of wealth. Even worship of the people we love can lead to misguided images of who those people really are and can shift focus from other loved ones or needs. Refraining from worship of stuff and people and concepts reorients us towards what is truly important in life. Or at least, it reorients us towards that goal of figuring out what is truly important. And refraining from coveting other people’s possessions gives us a similar shift of focus towards the positive.
As we spoke about a few weeks ago, our speech is holy - our words hold significant creative power. When we refuse to use God’s name in vain, we simply add a layer to the consciousness we should already be giving to our each and every word.
With an observance of Shabbat, we give ourselves the opportunity to pause and reset each week. While the specific laws may be complicated, the command to let go for one day a week is simple to follow and integral to our physical and mental health. For one day a week, we make sure to get enough sleep, to eat some square meals, to withdraw from the grind of work, and to pay attention to the relationships that need cultivating.
We honor our parents, in the Torah, specifically so that your days will be long. And even if our parents are or were not perfect - most likely, our parents are or were not perfect - we honor them by learning from their triumphs and their mistakes alike.
We are commanded not to murder, adulter, steal, or lie; these commandments, again, are intuitive enough that we do not need untarnished faith in God or years of education to grasp them. We do not perform these acts so that we can maintain the relationships that are vital to us, so that we can maintain our integrity, both in our eyes and in the eyes of others.
Each of the commandments among our Big Ten is accessible, and it is easy to see why they are so important. If we ever find ourselves at a time at which it seems difficult to keep up with everything Judaism asks from us, these are commandments which we can cling to each day. On a day on which putting on tefillin and saying blessings before and after each meal seem like insurmountable tasks, I can start with gratitude for the things I have, with turning away from obsession, with following through with my word. Not all of these ten are easy for all people, but all are doable for anyone. As we begin to ready ourselves for this upcoming High Holy Day season, let us start with the accessible; which of these Ten Commandments do you need to reassess? How can reimagining your practice of these commandments improve (or even, as the Torah suggests) lengthen your life? These Ten Commandments are not stopping points; they do not define the whole of Judaism; however, they are tasks on which we can focus when we need a reminder of our obligation and potential to live, really live by our Judaism. Shabbat Shalom.