July 30, 2021
Relationships in the Commandments
Dear Holy Friends,
I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health. Allow me to thank you for the many kindnesses recently extended towards my family and me following the passing of my sister Ellen, of blessed memory.
Due to the craziness of last week, I did not have the opportunity to comment on the repetition of the Ten Commandments, which were the highlight of last Shabbat’s Torah reading. Please indulge me, while I share a couple of ideas regarding this essential text.
As you know, in Jewish tradition there is the idea that the Torah contains six- hundred and thirteen commandments. The Rabbis offer several frameworks through which to classify these Mitzvoth. Popular theories suggest that they should be separated into two main categories called תעשה (positive) and לא תעשה (negative). The positive commandments are those directives that tell us what we should do (for example, remember Shabbat and honor your parents), while the negative injunctions communicate to us what we should not do (for example, do not kill and do not steal).
A second classification says that the commandments are divided into two groupings, Mitzvoth between humankind and God (for example, putting on Tefillin) and Mitzvoth between humankind and his fellow human being (for example, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor).
A third classification suggests that the commandments should be delineated based on time restraints. The Mitzvah of Shabbat is time bound (we can’t celebrate it on Tuesday evening), while other Mitvoth have no time restrictions (again, think of honoring one’s parents, which is a directive that always exists).
When it comes to the Ten Commandments themselves, I found an interesting interpretation by a 12th century Spanish philosopher named Abraham ben Chiya. He begins by saying that, in order to classify the commandments, one first needs to ignore the first commandment which reads, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.” Correctly, he points out that the biblical text is a statement and not a command. For the other nine, however, he offers a unique framework (that can also be applied to the rest of the Torah’s commandments).
Ben Chiya proposes that the commandments pertain to three specific relationships (human to God, human to family and human to human), which are actualized through thought, speech, or action. He demonstrates that the unit of these nine commandments fits neatly into his framework.
Human to God commandments include: do not have other Gods before me (thought); do not use God’s name in vain (speech); and keep the Shabbat (action). Human to human commandments include: do not bare false witness (speech); do not covet (thought); and do not steal (action). And finally, human to family commandments include: do not commit adultery (action); honor your parents (speech); and do not murder (thought).
In general, I like his systemization although I believe that the last commandment of murder may be a stretch. Nonetheless, what I continue to be fascinated by is the idea that there are so many ways to think about our relationships to the commandments and our relationships in the world. Jewish tradition continues to challenge us to reconsider our place of holiness and sacredness in time and space.
As we prepare to enter Shabbat and as we prepare to rejoin in-person, I challenge all of us to open ourselves to new ideas of how we think about our responsibilities in the world, our responsibilities to family, and our responsibilities to community. May we be blessed, challenged, thoughtful, and then bring the best of ourselves into the world, so as to sanctify the name of God.
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD