Receiving the Ten Commandments through New Eyes: A Shabbat Message in Preparation for Shavuot

May 19, 2023

Shavuot, which means “weeks,” is the name of the festival which originated as an agricultural festival celebrating the beginning of the grain harvest, and became a celebration of Matan Torah -the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The biblical descriptions of the revelation of Torah to the Israelites are rich and dramatic, and of course have provided a powerful subject for many books and films including the famous 1956 film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston in the role of Moses. While the tablets that Moses brought down from the top of Mount Sinai were etched with the Ten Commandments (the Hebrew words – Aseret HaDibbrot – mean “the ten utterances/speakings”), our tradition understands the Sinai moment as the revelation of Torah in its broadest sense – the entire compendium of Jewish wisdom: The Ten Commandments, the books of the Hebrew bible (TaNaCH) with their 613 mitzvot (commandments), the later commentaries, the Talmud, Jewish law, and more. I believe that when we speak of Torah in its broadest sense, there is no end to its revelation; it is constantly unfolding and being revealed to us and from us, when we engage in Jewish learning and connection. I believe that revelation of Torah is ongoing, including the interpretations that every Jew (including those who choose to become Jewish) has and will bring in the generations to come.

As we approach Shavuot, I am interested in new perspectives on the Ten Commandments themselves. So well known throughout the Judeo-Christian world, etched in many synagogue stained glass windows or on or above the ark, the subject of films, books, and art – they are familiar, yet not often studied in depth. This past week I discovered two beautiful translations/interpretations (all translations are interpretations!) of the Ten Commandments, such a cornerstone (pun intended) of Western Civilization, and I have included them below to give you new perspectives on them as we approach the celebration of the receiving of Torah. I hope you will take some time to read and reflect on them, and out of that sacred conversation between you, the ancient text, and the contemporary interpretation of the Ten Commandments, new torah, new wisdom, will be revealed!

Rabbi Shefa Gold, in her book Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land, writes:

When, in our wanderings, we come to Sinai, God speaks to each of us directly. The mountain of revelation appears to us on our journey when we are ready to receive the awesome truth of our connection to the Source, to each other, and to all of Creation.

In that moment of Revelation, it becomes clear:

Obviously, God is the true reality;
bowing down to my own illusions would be silly.
Of course, I cannot hurt any other living thing
without hurting myself; we are a part of each other.
Of course, there is no need to steal;
who is there to steal from, but another member
of the larger self of which I too am a part?
In that moment of revelation it will become clear that the
desire that has created such turmoil within me is based on an
illusion of lack; connected to all of Creation,
I am rich beyond measure.
And certainly, my father and mother must be honored;
they are my own flesh and blood and they gave me
this precious life.
And yes, in that moment of revelation
the beauty and sanctity of Shabbat becomes clear;
how else can I remember this moment of freedom that
revelation brings if not by stopping and receiving
the miracle of Creation anew each week?

Rabbi Yael Levy, in her book Directing the Heart: Weekly Mindfulness Teachings and Practices from the Torah, writes:

Standing at the foot of a mountain filled with flame, We listened to the One reverberate in our hearts. And in the silence, we heard the Mystery call:

1. I am, I was, I will be. I am the unfolding of all that is. I am constant transformation calling you forward to be.
2. You cannot arrest me in motion. You cannot grasp or hold onto time. Do not strive for certainty. Do not seek permanence.
3. Do not use a Divine name to make false promises. Do not use sacred teachings to lift up a destructive path. 
4. Rest, Stop, Pause. Be. Honor creation. Declare your freedom. Rest and allow others to rest as well.
5. Honor your parents. Honor your ancestors. Honor those upon whose shoulders you stand. 
6. Do not murder. 
7. Do not betray
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not use the power of words to hurt or destroy. 
10. Feel the fullness of your life. Don’t be led astray by comparing yourself to others. Don’t get lost in desiring what others have. Be content, be fulfilled with what your life. 

Rabbi Audrey Berkman