First Two of the Ten Concepts
וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֗ת אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י הַבְּרִ֔ית עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים
He [Moshe] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten concepts (Ex. 34:28)
This passage teaches us that the term “Ten Commandments” is a misnomer. There are two other references to the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4:13 and 10:4), and in both the same term is used: עשרת הדברים – the ten concepts. This is because the first and the last items of the covenant are not commandments. The first seems to be a statement: “I am YHWH, your God,” and the last is a promise. The promise of the Ten Concepts is as follows:
- Understand and cherish your personal relationship with God, who gave you freedom.
- Do not adulterate or limit that relationship by making physical, limited images to represent God.
- Do not abuse the relationship by claiming to speak in God’s name.
- Cherish your relationships with your parents, and by extension, your family.
- Allow yourself to enjoy the gift of Shabbat, together with the whole nation, thus acknowledging the importance of freedom.
- Do not infringe upon others’ rights. Protect their life, their relationships, their possessions, and their right to fair trial.
Once you have accomplished that, you will be able to appreciate the basic gifts we all share as humans and to respect the rights of others. That, in turn, will guarantee that you will not covet what does not belong to you.
I have explained this interpretation in detail elsewhere, and today I would like to focus on the first two concepts, starting with some questions:
Why does God consider it so important that we recognize Him as God and that we do not worship idols? Why would He be jealous if we did?
Let us look at the first concept:
אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יי אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים
I am YHWH, your God! [I] have brought you out of Egypt, of the house of bondage.
The language of this statement, as is that of the whole covenant, is in the singular. God speaks to the Israelites as a nation, yet He addresses each one of them individually. The covenant is about the importance and the uniqueness of the individual. It emphasizes the personal relationship each one of us has with God, a relationship which is a product of the way we perceive ourselves.
The idea of a personal God I a recurring motif in the bible. It is evident in the narratives of those who sought God or were chosen by him, but it emerges more powerfully in the stories of those who tried to hide from Him, even if only momentarily. They have discovered that the Image of God, embedded in man at creation, is a spiritual GPS chip which accompanies us wherever we go. Even when you try to shut God out of your life, even when you run to the most remote corners of the world to be alone, you are not alone, because YOU are there, and if you are there, God is there as well.
The first fugitive is Adam:
…Adam and his wife hid from God amongst the trees of the garden. God called out to Adam, saying, where are you? Adam said, I heard Your voice in the garden and I was filled with fear for I am naked, so I hid… (Gen. 3, 8-10)
Adam is hiding because he has lost something he held precious. His relationship with God. He feels that he has been stripped naked, that he lost what he had because of his error. God calls out to Adam to remind him that they can still talk, even if it is to accept responsibility for the wrongdoing. Adam, forefather of humanity, thus learns to reclaim his dignity and face his demons, empowered by the divine spark in him.
Another famous fugitive is Jonah. After Jonah is thrown to the sea and swallowed by a fish, he speaks of his failed attempt to run away from God and from himself:
I thought I have exiled myself from your sight, but I still gaze at Your sacred temple… when my soul withdraws into itself, I remember You, and my prayer comes to You, to Your sacred temple… (Jonah 2:5)
Jonah tried to exile himself, to drive himself away from the presence of God, using the same root which describes Adam’s exile from the Garden of Eden – גרש. But he still gazes, as his soul withdraws into itself in the belly of the fish, at the sacred temple. He is the only one there, in the darkest, narrowest, most horrific prison, the belly of the fish at the bottom of the ocean, and yet there is someone in the room with him. It is Jonah himself. He is still connected to God and can still have a dialog with him, and he eventually emerges from his living prison cell.
The last biblical figure is David, who spent many years as a fugitive from King Saul, but who also reveals in Psalm 139 (7-12) that he has contemplated running away from God:
How can I escape Your spirit? How can I avoid Your presence? If I rise to the heavens, You are there, I go down to the netherworld, I face You. [Even if] I soar on the wings of dawn, I dwell at the far end of the ocean, there also Your hand will guide me, Your right [hand] will hold me. I thought that darkness could cover me, that night could be my day, but darkness, for You, is not dark, the night shines as day, darkness is light.
Rabbi Shelomo ibn Gevirol put it succinctly in his Keter Malkhut – The Crown of Royalty (chapter 38): I run away from You, to You!
Back to the first of the Ten Concepts, we could say that God tells each individual that the Exodus has granted him the power to be unique and to develop his own relationship with God, without being subjugated to any other human beings. This does not mean that one could do whatever he wants, with disregard for others, and for that we have the other concepts. We tend to think of the second half of the Ten Concepts as the one concerned with the rights of others, but that idea is there from the very beginning. The individual divinity of each person is a manifestation of the idea of the Image of God, and each one of us is supposed to think not only of himself but of all others as well as people created in the Image of God. Therefore, all humans must respect and protect each other.
That idea is also at the core of the prohibition against idolatry. God’s “jealousy” does not stem from selfish considerations but rather from his concern for humanity. Paganism is a pretext for doing whatever you want, including the greatest evils, in the name of religion. When there is a pantheon of competing and quarreling gods, one can always choose sides, and stories, such as the Iliad, will be made of how one god supported the Greeks while the other cheered for the Trojans. Paganism also allows people to craft their gods in their own image and then ask these gods to guide them. Thus, they do whatever they want, but in the name of god. This system, which the Israelites found very hard to abandon, could lead to the destruction of humanity. God uses such harsh language here and throughout the bible, not because paganism poses a threat to Him, but because it does so to humanity.
This is also the reason for the prohibition against making images. God is the Creator, He is omniscient and omnipresent, and our perception of Him changes constantly in accordance with our experience and stage in life. Similarly, us humans, created in His image, possess something of these qualities. Making a carved or molten image confines the Divine Image into limited physical object with clearly defined boundaries. By creating molten or carved images, we limit ourselves.
In the first two of the Ten concepts the Torah calls on us to appreciate the freedom has granted us and to keep exploring the possibilities ahead of us, always remembering that we have a commitment and obligation towards all mankind.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia