In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to what has become known throughout our planet as the Ten Commandments. These ten mandates declared by God to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai are the building blocks of behavior in Judaism and beyond.
And, yet, despite the almost universal knowledge of God’s injunction, these commandments are frequently ignored, if not wholeheartedly snubbed.
For instance, in 2011 there were 14,612 murders in the United States and over 9 million thefts.
One of the most reliable statistics on adultery comes from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago which concluded that one quarter of the married men in the United States and a sixth of the married women reported having at least one extramarital affair.
And Credit Card Debt, which can easily be related to coveting and/or worshiping graven images was reported by the Huffington Post to be $43.5 billion in 2012.
While God is commanding, the people are rebelling.
A mitzvah, in Hebrew is said to be a divinely revealed commandment. What is interesting to note is origin of the word commandment. Comandement, meaning an order from an authority, comes from Middle English and Old French and dates back to only the 13 century. This explains why, ironically, the term Ten Commandments is not actually found in the Torah. Judaism refers to the Aseret ha-Debrot, the ten sayings or utterances, spoken by God at Mount Sinai. While the Torah is clear that it is God who sets these ideals in place, they are spoken in the context of principles, not laws. The Geneva Bible published in the 16th century was the first to use the phrase Ten Commandments…which was then, ultimately, adopted by the King James Bible.
In the book Minyan by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, we are told that there is a real difference between a commandment and a vow, especially as Buddhists understand the latter term. A commandment is an order levied upon one by a superior. A vow is a personal statement of intent. The former implies an enforceable hierarchy of power; the latter relies solely on your own integrity. One who breaks a commandment is liable for punishment. One who fails to keep a vow is liable to self-incrimination. One can and should return to a vow over and over again to bolster one’s intention to proceed with the avowed action. It is not a matter of breaking a rule and being punished, but of recognizing one’s limits and recommitting to a goal.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzsky suggests that mitzvot are key to human self-improvement. And, thus they are divine instructions rather than commands. And Rabbi Arthur Waskow speaks of mitzvah as an act that connects an individual with the larger world and with God.
The Root of the Hebrew word halahka, meaning law, is halakh which translates as to walk or to go, or the way to go. So, as we listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments this Shabbat, let us remind ourselves that Jewish law at its core is about guidance. We spend our lives at untold crossroads, making choices about which direction to take. While our families, society, and even translations of our Torah may command certain behaviors, it is up to us to choose, with kavannah or intention, the path of growth and the way of righteousness.