Reading the Ten Commandments through a New Lens: A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Berkman for Parashat Yitro

February 2, 2024


This week in our Torah portion, the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot – more accurately translated as “the Ten Sayings.” ) Imagine, just about three months after being freed from Egyptian slavery, miraculously crossing the Sea of Reeds on dry land, our ancestors who had known only slavery are now experiencing the revelation of the divine and divine truths by which they are to live. Torah describes this moment as being just as overwhelming as you’d think, with the Israelites even asking Moses to serve as their intermediary as the direct revelation of the presence of God and all that this God represents, is entirely too much for them to handle. 

The Ten Commandments are of course foundational to Western Civilization and have been represented in art and in film and literature, and often found in artistic expressions of the tablets on arks which hold Torah scrolls all over the Jewish world. 

During our Thursday Torah study group, Torah for the Heart and Mind (all are welcome anytime! See the newsletter for details), we engage with the Torah portion through the lens of mindfulness practice, using the poetic translations/interpretations of my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Yael Levy, in her book Directing the Heart: Weekly Mindfulness Teachings and Practices from the Torah. I was struck (pun intended! There is plenty of lightning imagery in Torah’s descriptions of the revelation at Mount Sinai!) by the way that Rabbi Levy translates some of the Ten Commandments, which, as does all Torah commentary and translation, invites us into a new meaning with which to engage, reflect, and live. This week, I share with you this beautiful translation:

  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. Do not give yourself to falsehood. Do not seek to arrest me in motion or create me with your own hands. Be with uncertainty. Allow mystery.
  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. Do not be led astray by comparing yourself to others. Do not get lost in desiring what others have. Be content, be fulfilled with what your life brings. (Exodus 20:1-14)

The first commandment is more traditionally translated in this way: I יהוה am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides me. The second: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

What if we understand God as the process of becoming, of unfolding, of constant transformation? Our human tendency is to believe that security and safety is found in what is solid, immovable and unchanging- like the golden calf that the Israelites constructed and worshiped immediately upon receiving the commandment not to build an idol! Mindfulness practice is anchored in the breath itself, which is the perfect manifestation of flow, movement, and change which is at the core of life and of truth. Our breath comes and goes, and when we tune into it, paradoxically we can find the safety and security, the rootedness and groundedness, which we all crave and need. It goes against the rational mind – what is solid and unchanging must represent the truth! But what does not bend, breaks. At the core of our lives, and the core of the values we must live out in this covenantal relationship with God to which we entered at Sinai, is the truth of movement, flow, and transformation. Even the God of Torah and the later commentaries is described always as changing, learning, growing. When we cannot “be with uncertainty,” when we cannot “allow Mystery,” we are actually committing idolatry. We are seeking to solidify, to arrest and to make stagnant, that which is not. God describes godself at that which “was, am, and will be,” and so are we. We are always unfolding, always in process, but our minds like to grasp tightly onto solidity rather than to allow for flow and movement. This ultimately closes our minds and our hearts, which must be soft and open (Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened” and so too when we grasp too tightly onto what we think is true, we can miss Truth altogether.) To quote my favorite non-Jewish poet, the German Christian poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed. For where I am closed, I am false.”

May we open our hearts, our minds, to the truth of ourselves and of each other, as we move through this world of movement, flux, and change. May we be curious and open to the possibility that as Rabbi Levy interprets: God is “constant transformation calling us forward to be.” 


Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman