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ARE THERE TEN COMMANDMENTS?

16 February 2017 No Comment

ARE THERE TEN COMMANDMENTS?

By Rabbi Michael Whitman

When revealing Himself at Mount Sinai and introducing Himself to the entire Jewish people for the first time, and for all time, why does God describe Himself (Exodus 20:2) as the One who took us out of Egypt and not the One who created heaven and earth? Surely creating heaven and earth is a more majestic and apt description.

We refer to this passage as the Ten Commandments, one of the most influential collection of words in the history of mankind, words that hold special meaning for all faiths. But does this passage actually contain ten commandments? The Biblical text nowhere refers to this passage as the Ten Commandments (this phrase is only used later), though the Torah does refer to this passage as Aseret HaDevarim (Ten Statements). The answer hinges on whether the first statement (I am the Lord your God…) is a commandment (to believe in God, according to Nachmonides) or an introduction to the next nine statements/commandments (according to Maimonides).

As an introduction, this statement makes the case for why we should obey the commandments that follow. And the answer God gives is not because God created heaven and earth and therefore He is most powerful and His commandments are obligatory on us (though we may believe this is all true). Rather His appeal is based on the value that comes to us from observing the commandments. God tells us, I took you out of slavery, I saved you from harm, I care about you, I love you more than you will ever know. Every commandment I give you is a continuation of that caring and love, to make your life better, more meaningful, and more holy.

Sometimes observing commandments seems like a burden, a chore. But this foundational phrase teaches us that in fact it is a gift, an opportunity. The challenge is to see that gift in our everyday lives, even when we are distracted, stretched thin, and pulled in many directions.

So this is my question for my brothers, John and Zijad: there are many commandments that are common to all of us, and many that are unique to our own faiths. Do you experience a commandment primarily as an act that gives glory to God, or primarily as an act that adds value to our lives – and if the latter, how do you maintain that feeling when the commandment seems burdensome or meaningless?

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