Home » Blog » Encountering the Essence of the Ten Commandments

Encountering the Essence of the Ten Commandments

Most of us would recognize the Ten Commandments, even though few of us could actually list them. Beyond arguing about whether the commandments belong on the walls of schools and in the Federal Courts (they don’t), fewer still have tried to explore deeply the essence of this list.

Recently, I read Rabbi Yael Levy‘s Torah Commentary, Journeying with the Torah: Week by Week, Season by Season, Moment to Moment (from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality), which delves through and beyond the words to discover the essence of the Ten Commandments. Her explication of the list, through a Jewish spiritual lens, is breath-taking and refreshing.

Top 10 Commandments: The Usual Listing
We begin recalling a “traditional” listing of the commandments (from Ron Isaacs). While there are multiple ways to count the Ten, the prevailing Jewish tradition appears to be:

  1. First Commandment (Exodus 20:2): I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  2. Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3-6): You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them…
  3. Third Commandment (Exodus 20:7): You shall not take the name of the Eternal Your God in vain…
  4. Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11): Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Eternal Your God…
  5. Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12): Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Eternal God gives you.
  6. Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not murder.
  7. Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not commit adultery.
  8. Eighth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not steal.
  9. Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:14):You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his wife, … nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

Reimagining the Transcendent Moment
Rabbi Levy imagines the moment at Mt. Sinai, when

…the world disappeared.
All distinction vanished.
There was no I, no you, no tree, no bird, no water, no rock.
There was only One:
One breath,
One life,
Only One.

And all of us stood
With the One breath still on our lips
And we knew.
We knew
The One inside the many
The One beyond anything that could be or seen known
The One:
And we trembled in awe… 

We listened to the One reverberate in our hearts
And in the silence, we heard the Mystery call:

Going Beyond the Words
Rabbi Levy pierces the essence of the Ten Utterances:

  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 brings.

Breath-taking, mind-altering, refreshingly expressive
Rabbi Levy invites us to reencounter the holy list.

In what ways can you embrace this interpretation of the Ten Commandments?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.