Understanding Sinai

This is the week when Jews are meant to go back to Mount Sinai. Not literally, of course (especially as there is a debate over exactly where Mount Sinai is), but spiritually. During the celebration of Shavuot, the Jewish people are meant to connect with the significance of the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel. These Ten Commandments are the building blocks of Jewish life, Jewish law and the civilization that the Torah intends the Jewish people to build.

Oddly enough, the narrative of what occurred at Mount Sinai is not one of the better-known biblical stories. Perhaps, because it is overshadowed by the unfortunate event that happened shortly thereafter...that whole incident with the golden calf.

In order to receive the Torah, the Jewish people were instructed to prepare themselves for three days. They bathed, washed their clothes and refrained from overt physical pleasures. They tried to focus on the event to come. It was a time of incredible excitement and incredible stress. It was so stressful that the Midrash reports that the Jewish people overslept on the morning of the day they were to receive the Torah! (Imagine when you prepare so hard for an event that you forget the little details, like setting an alarm clock.)

On the third morning, a thick cloud covered the mountain and there was thunder and lightning. The Israelites gathered around the small mountain that trembled under the strain of the Divine presence that had descended upon it. And then God spoke the Ten Commandments to the people.

Actually, according to the Midrash, only the first two of the Commandments were spoken aloud by God (Talmud Maakot 24a). This experience alone was overwhelming enough for the Israelites, and they begged Moses to receive the rest of the commandments for them.

The Israelites were overwhelmed by the voice of God, but there is significance to the fact that only the first two commandments were heard by the nation directly from God. These two commandments are: 'I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt' and 'You shall have no other Gods before me."

How can a verse such as "I am the Lord your God" be included in the Ten Commandments if it does not contain an action. Guard Shabbat, Honor your parents, Don't steal...these are commandments that one can readily understand. What is it, exactly, that the verse "I am the Lord your God" is commanding?

Jewish tradition understands that the words "I am" (Anochi) implies the command "to know." One is meant to know, in his/her heart and mind, that there is a God and that God is the omnipresent Creator of all things in the universe.

It is interesting to note that, according to the Sefer Hachinuch, "I am the Lord your God" is one of only six commandments that can, and should, be performed at all times and in all places.

"I am the Lord your God" is at once one of the easiest and one of the most difficult commandments to fulfill. What makes it difficult is that humankind naturally prefers to credit itself for the good (and bad) found in the world. At its most basic, this mitzvah is fulfilled by simply believing in God. The more desirable way to fulfill this mitzvah, however, is to try and see God's hand in one's life all day, every day.

"I am the Lord your God" as seen as the fundamental commandment to see the Divine in all actions allows for a different perspective on the rest of the Ten Commandments (indeed, the rest of the Torah). According to the sages, the first five commandments concern one's relationship with God. The second five are concerned with interpersonal relationships. Strikingly, these two sets of five parallel each other and demonstrate how "I am the Lord Your God is reflected in one's personal and public life:

1) I am the Lord your God and 6) Do not murder: When someone murders another person, the perpetrator, in effect, denies that the victim is created b'tzelem Eh'lokim, made in the image of God. A murderer assumes that there is no higher power who will either punish him/her or who will punish the person whom he/she feels has wronged him/her.

2) You shall have no idols and 7) Do not commit adultery: Just as adultery is being unfaithful to one's spouse, worshiping idols is tantamount to being unfaithful to God.

3) Do not make a false oath and 8) Do not steal: One who swears falsely in God's name distorts the trust that people place in God to uphold justice. One who steals twists the trust another person puts in him/her.

4) Sanctify the Sabbath and 9) Do not bear false witness: By sanctifying the Sabbath day, one bears testimony that God created the world and redeemed the Jews from Egypt. Violating the Sabbath denies both.

5) Honor your mother and father and 10) Do not covet your neighbor's possessions: By honoring our parents, we recognize God as our Creator, thereby honoring Him as well. When we covet our neighbor's possessions we deny God as the Ruler of the world and believe that we have been denied something that we deserve.

Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, begins at sunset on Tuesday night, June 3. To learn more about Shavuot, please visit NJOP's Shavuot Essentials page. To learn more about each of the Ten Commandments, download (for Free) Jewish Treats Guide to the Ten Commandments.