Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Eight positive mitzvahs and four prohibitions
Moshe’s plea to enter the Promised Land is rejected by God
Moshe reiterates the foundations of the Faith
Failure to maintain Allegiance to God will result in the nation’s being scattered…
But because of His love for Israel, He will not abandon us
“Ataw horaysa lawdaas key Hashem who H’alokim…” [“You are the ones who have been shown, so that you will know that God is Supreme Being, and there is none besides Him” ]
Three Cities of Refuge are designated in the land east of the Jordan River
“V’zos Hatorah asher som Moshe lefnay bnai yisrael” [“And this is the Torah that Moshe set before the children of Israel”]
Moshe explains that the special Covenant with God made at Mt. Sinai applies to all generations of Israel
Repeat of Decalogue (Ten Words /Commandments) with some variation
“Shema Yisrael…” and the first paragraph of Shema :
o Defines the Oneness of God
o Demands we love Him
o Urges us to constantly teach our children and our students
o Requires us to repeat Shema twice a daily
o Mandates wearing of Tefillin on arm and head and affixing a Mezuzah on the doorpost of a home
Warning not to forget God, especially during times of prosperity
Keeping the Commandments
Remembering the Exodus
Warnings against assimilation
Urgency of eliminating all vestiges of idolatry in the Promised Land
Moshe’s Repetition of Aseret Ha-devarim (Ten Words or Ten Commandments)
1. I am the Lord your God…
2. You shall have no other gods beside me
3. You shall not swear falsely…
4. Guard the Sabbath day…
5. Honor your father and mother…
6. Do not murder
7. Do not commit adultery
8. Do not steal/kidnap
9. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor
10. You shall not covet…
In the first two commandments God speaks in the first person. The rest are expressed in the third person. The Israelites, frightened by the sound of the Divine voice and His overwhelming presence, demanded that the last eight be said by Moshe in God’s name.
The commandments are presented on two tablets, each listing five. The first five, consisting of matters between Man and God, mention His name and include punishment for violation and reward for observance. The fifth, to honor one’s parents, (included on this tablet because God is a partner with parents in creation and education of children) is the bridge to the left tablet, which consists of five staccato, short statements demanding ethical behavior between Man and his fellow Man. These commandments have no associated reward or punishment. They represent fundamental, universal ethical behavior one needs to embrace to be included in the Community of God.
Ibn Ezra notes how on the tablet on the right the progression…
• Begins with beliefs
• Continues with the verbal
• Advances to behavior one day a week(Sabbath)
• Concludes with full-time behavior (Honoring parents)
Faith lays the groundwork for observance in the religious realm.
The commandments on the left tablet deal with behavior between Man and Man. Here rules of conduct come first; thoughts, plans and cravings come later:
• The first commandment prohibits the most reprehensible behavior (murder) and is…
• Followed by less-severe immoralities (adultery, stealing) then…
• Advances to deceitful speech and…
• Concludes with sinful thoughts and desires
When it comes to interpersonal relationships we are a religion of deed before creed! We are commanded to avoid the worst type of behavior first and then deal with our speech and then work on controlling our impulses.
Rabbi David Fohrman discerns a correspondence of ideas between the commandments on the left and on the right. The Decalogue is encapsulated in five core principles that encompass and summarize the essence of the Torah. The structure is a kind a table of contents for the entire Torah, elegantly summarized in few words:
Commandment number one (I am the Lord your God) corresponds to commandment number six on the left (not to commit murder). Both communicate the idea that one is not to act on the belief that one’s life would be better off without either God (by not believing in Him) or without a particular person (by killing him/her).
The second commandment on each tablet deals with the sanctity of relationships and the requisite exclusivity entailed. As relates to God, “You shall have no other gods beside me”. As relates to humans, adultery is prohibited because it is a betrayal of a sacred, exclusive relationship.
To not swear falsely (third commandment on the on the right tablet) and its corresponding prohibition of stealing (on the left) share the same idea of miscarriages of justice committed by fraudulently removing a person’s rightful possessions.
Guarding the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, corresponds to the commandment not to bear false witness (fourth on the left tablet). The Sabbath bears witness to God’s universal Goodness in His creation and cessation of creation. One who violates the Sabbath may be comparable to the witness who perjures himself in court, denying the truth and undermining the Divine equilibrium of universal integrity.
Honoring one’s parents, the last commandment on the right, corresponds to the last commandment, of not coveting, by virtue of the commonality of the powerful, aggressive emotional forces (both conscious and unconscious) we experience. Both commandments impress upon us the need to take control and make sure that our behavior is appropriate, these powerful forces notwithstanding.
I. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage”
Is this a statement or commandment?
Abravanel and others maintain that there is no commandment to believe in God because Torah cannot dictate belief. It is a statement that records what God did for the Israelites, which is the basis for His subsequent commandments.
Rambam asserts that there is a commandment to believe in God. One is obligated to realize that there is cause and motive in the world ; that God intervenes in human affairs (like freeing the Israelites from Egypt); and that one needs to observe, investigate and then realize the Awesome-ness of God and all He has created.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin summarizes that ethical monotheism—the idea that One Universal God rules and demands ethical conduct from human beings—“comprises Judaism’s major intellectual and spiritual contribution to the world.”
Rabbi Benno Jacob (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) sees the importance of the “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage” as establishing the Divine rejection of lands of culture [like Egypt] that have no room for freedom. God removed us from this liberty-less environment of enslavement.
II. “You shall have no other God beside me…”
Idolatry is the idealization and worship of anything believed to be greater than God. We are prohibited from “worshiping”, for example, money or technology in its many forms (bio, medical, and computer) as the ultimate power in the universe.
Nechama Leibowitz surveys possible meaning of the expression “beside me”…
Or Ha-chayyim thinks it means God’s demand of exclusive worship because once a person starts worshiping one deity he will end up worshiping many.
Chizkuni: If you accept another master, know it will be in defiance of me (i.e., in my face)
Onkeles: besides me, or in addition to me
Rashi/Midrash: in my presence. Just like God’s existence is eternal so is the prohibition of idolatry
Ramban: God is present everywhere so knows whether one is idolatrous publicly or in private
Avraham, son of the Rambam: Because of God’s Omnipresence, we are prohibited from accepting the services of any mediator between Him and Man
III. “Lo Seesaw (You should not take) the name of the Lord your God in vain…”
Avoid oaths. We are commanded to not use the Divine name for false (swearing a tree is a rock) or even useless oaths (swearing a tree is a tree).
The word “seesaw” can also mean carry. As such, Rabbi Telushkin understands this commandment to mean that one is prohibited from citing (i.e., “carrying”) God’s name and authority for promoting an evil cause (like Crusaders murdering innocents in the name of God or racist organizations like Ku Klux Klan and ISIS that claim that they are doing God’s will).
IV. “Guard the Sabbath day and make it holy…”
The Sabbath, already practiced by the Israelites since the appearance of the manna, was a revolutionary innovation in its demand that not only humans but also servants and animals cease from working on that day. The ancients mocked the idea. Workaholics take note: We all are entitled to have at least one seventh of their lives for ourselves—to rest, to think, to rejoice, to contemplate, to study and to rejuvenate both our spiritual and physical lives.
The original Ten Commandments stated “Remember the Sabbath day”. This refers to the sanctification of the day by positive precepts including wine, prayer and joy. What is prohibited here is any action that is creative and productive, as defined by the thirty nine categories of creative activity that were employed in the building of the Tabernacle. Both words Guard and Remember are thought to have been spoken by God simultaneously.
In the original Decalogue, the Sabbath was instituted to remind us of God and His Creation: “For in six days God made the heavens, the earth and the sea—and all that was in them—and He ‘rested’ on the seventh day.” But here Moshe links the Sabbath to our remembering that we were servants in the land of Egypt and that God brought us out “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”. The Israelites in Egypt were enslaved day-in and day-out without respite. In their new life in the Promised Land, they are warned to not treat others in the way that they were mistreated.
V. “Honor (cabayd) thy father and mother as the Lord your God has commanded you in order that thy days may be long and that it may go well with you on the land that the Lord thy God gives you.”
The phrase “and that it may go well with you” does not appear in the original Ten Commandments given on Mt. Sinai.
The Torah does not command us to love our parents because one cannot dictate emotions. We are commanded to behave in a way that honors our parents. Cabayd—the Hebrew word for honor—is related to the root word for heavy, suggesting that this particular commandment is among, if not the, “heaviest”, most important and most difficult one for humans to observe. The conflict between child and parent seems inherent in the human condition to the point where God needs to restore family harmony by interceding and sending the prophet Elijah to “reconcile the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children in their relationship with their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).
The root word cabayd also means liver, that body organ that the ancients believed was the source of heaviness, anger, and melancholy (and perhaps, in modern day parlance, conflict and depression). In modern psychological terms these may refer to the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex. Yocheved Ausubel notes that the blood-filled liver is a vital organ that is critical for survival. It is part of the digestive system as well as being responsible for many things including cholesterol production, detoxification and protein synthesis. Perhaps without cabayd to our parents our physical well-being is impaired.
Cabayd also means to treat with dignity, specifically as it relates to this new generation that is burying the older generation and is reminded to do this task in a respectful, dignified manner.
Jonathan Elkoubi speculates that the Decalogue needed repeating because during the 40 year desert trek every commandment had been broken, one way or another, by the parents of the Israelites now awaiting entry into the Promised Land. These children of Israel to whom Moshe is speaking spent their youth in the desert wandering and wondering about the poor choices their parents made after their awesome Mt. Sinai experience. They (and we) now are being reminded that even if we are puzzled by our parents’ actions, we are obligated to act in a respectful way simply because they are our parents.
The added phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you” suggests that in the past God emphasized this commandment. Or perhaps “has commanded you” is a poetic way of saying that the need for parental respect is intuitive and built into our DNA. Or perhaps this phrasing is meant to reinforce our need to work through our conflicts with our parents, be they unconscious or conscious.
The phrase “and that it may go well with you” may mean that the quality of our personal life improves with the resolution of the parent-child conflict. With the imminent entry of the Israelites to their homeland to build a nation the message is that Society cannot exist and thrive without inter-generational reconciliation.
Including the fifth commandment with those that have to do with Man’s relationship with God, makes the point that God is a partner with our parents in our creation. Respecting and honoring parents is one facet of respecting and honoring God. This commandment is the bridge to the last five between Man and Man. Perhaps the anti-social behavior listed and prohibited on the left hand side of the Decalogue (murder, theft, adultery) may be rooted in one’s failure to observe the fifth commandment. One’s life may become heavy/difficult (cabayd) if one does not cabayd one’s parents.
Rav Yissocher Frand deals with the question of how far one must go to respect parents by citing the story of a non-Jew from Ashkelon named Dama bar Nesinah (Kiddushin 31a):
The Sages once needed a stone for the Urim v'Tumim, and they heard that Dama had exactly the stone they needed. They offered to pay him a huge sum for the stone. The stone was in a strongbox, with the key under his father's pillow.
When he told the Sages “I cannot help you; my father is sleeping, and I wouldn't disturb his sleep” they left.
A year later, a perfect red heifer, suitable for a parah adumah, was born in Dama's herd. The Sages came to purchase it. When asked how much he wanted for it, Dama replied "I know that you would give me any price I ask, but I only want the amount of money I lost by not waking my father last year."
As parents get older, they can become more demanding and test the patience of their children. Is there a limit to such patience? How much patience can be expected of a person? Is there a point where a person is allowed to run out of patience and be exempt from this mitzvah? Rav Frand concludes that Dama’s experience shows us the extent to which we are capable of honoring parents even under such tempting circumstances.
Dr. David Schnall, then-Dean of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work offered the 2002 graduates the following advice from the Parsha…
• Call your mother (“cabeyd es avecha v’es eymecha…”)
• Spend more time with your children than you think necessary (“v’shenantem l’vanecha”)
• Because our behavior defines our lives, observe and follow Torah values and ethics (“u’shmartem v’aseesem…”)
The respect for our parents extends beyond their lives and is manifest in the twelve month morning period required for their death, compared to only thirty days mourning for other relatives. Rabbi Hillel Davis shared with me a discussion on this topic between the great Torah scholars Rav Teitz, Rav Hutner and Rav Soloveitchik. The first two Gedolim explained that the reasons for this longer mourning period are 1) since one can only have one set of parents (while one can have multiple siblings or spouses or children) the loss for a parent is so much more severe and 2) because the loss of a parent severs the connection to Sinai. The Rav thought that there may be a tendency to feel that the death of a parent is normal and expected, since parents generally die before their children. The Halacha forces us not to underestimate the profundity and intensity of the loss and its effect on us by mandating that we experience the longer (and longest) mourning period.
These insights by our Gedolim resonate with psychological truths about the weighty effect that death of a parent can have on a person’s mental health and behavior. Freud called the death of his father "the [or a] most poignant loss" of his life, an event that prompted him to start self-analysis. Furthermore, he theorized that the illness or the death of one's parents can trigger a response “of punishing oneself in a hysterical fashion...with the same states [of illness] that they have had”. [Note: the word “hysterical” in Freud’s terminology refers to the complex process through which emotions translate into behavior. In current psychological terms it is labeled “conversion disorder”.] The profound, unconscious love-hate that can exist in a child-parent relationship is the heaviest burden one has to cope with in life (and, therefore, the use of the word cabayd).
There is intense, unimaginable pain in the loss of a child, but there is not the potentially life-long ongoing conflict described by Freud in the parent-child relationship. It is this depressive struggle and conflict (and possible associated guilt) in the parent-child relationship that prompts the need for twelve times more time to work through. The Halacha demands the extended period be observed by all, even by those who may not feel the need for it (lo pluug).
Loss of our parents, our creators, is akin to loss of the connection with God the Parent/Creator of both us and the universe.
VI. “You shall not Tirtzach” (commit unauthorized homicide)
One is prohibited from killing someone not deserving of death. The Hebrew word for killing is harog .Many incorrectly translate this prohibition to mean not “to kill” when in fact killing is permitted in certain circumstances including self-defense ; a house intruder believed to be a mortal threat; terrorists; and evil demagogues like Hitler.
VII. “You shall not commit adultery”
Adultery--when a married woman who has sexual relations with anyone other than her husband--is considered a sin against God and therefore cannot be absolved by a forgiving spouse.
VIII. “You shall not steal”
It is prohibited to kidnap… to take something belonging to someone else without permission…to deal deceitfully or falsely…to defraud.
IX. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”
A corrupt judiciary will pervert society. Justices are prohibited from favoring or even giving the appearance of favoring either party, rich or poor. Perjury is taboo as are deviations from the truth in and out of the courtroom. The punishment for lying witnesses is imposition of a fine equal to the dollar amount they intended to extract from the party they were testifying against.
X. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.”
To covet is to want or yearn to have someone else’s possession at his/her expense. Reasoning that one cannot be punished for one’s uncontrollable desires and thoughts, some maintain that the sin occurs only after there is a physically taking of the coveted item.
Others view this commandment as a means of controlling our aggressive drives. Ibn Ezra argues that we need to train ourselves to consider others’ possessions as things so far removed from the possibility of our ownership. For example, a common man cannot ever entertain the possibility of seducing a queen to whom he may be attracted. So there is no point wasting mental energy and time in desiring someone’s wife or possessions that are to be thought of as similarly unavailable. We only covet what we feel is within our reach. We don’t envy those we know we never could become.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ intriguing analysis views the Commandments as three groups of three:
The first three are about God, the Author and Authority…
• One God
• No other God
• Not taking God’s name in vain
The second set is about “createdness”…
• Shabbat is about the creation of the universe
• Honoring parents who created us and brought us into the world
• Murder is prohibited because we all are created equally by God
The third set is about the basic institutions of Society…
• Not to commit adultery is about the sanctity of marriage
• Not to steal is about sanctity of private property
• Not to bear false witness is about the administration of justice
The final Commandment is devoted to the emotion of envy and its devastating effects. Cognitive behavior theory has concluded that beliefs can mold feelings. Envy is one of the prime drivers of violence, as is clear from the Torah (Kayin and Hevel; Yosef and his brothers) and from world history. This burning desire to have what belongs to someone else or to be someone else can move people to commit adultery, to steal, to give false testimony and even to murder! Envy is singled out for attention because it is the force that undermines the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments.
Belief in God; being reminded of God’s presence in history and in our lives; and thinking about the concept of “createdness” can help us thwart envy. We exist because God created us and we have what He wanted us to have. Defining ourselves in relationship to other people (rather than in relation to God) triggers strife and envy and brings on unhappiness.
The antidote for envy is gratitude. It is the “modeh ani” we say when we awake –expressing thanks before we think or say anything else. It is the idea embodied in Ben Zoma’s statement that the only person who can be considered rich is the one who rejoices in what he has. Rabbi Sacks concludes that once we are freed of our letting others’ happiness determine ours , “we release a wave of positive energy allowing us to celebrate what we have instead of thinking about what other people have, and to be what we are instead of wanting to be what we are not.”
How Does One Love God?
The Shema starts with “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our G-D, the Lord is one”. The final word ECHAD may also be translated as unique (in His extraordinariness) or alone (expressing opposition to polytheism).
The next verse reads ”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”.
What does it mean to love God? How can we experience this emotion toward an unseen and unrecognized entity? And how can we be commanded to feel something, when we have no control over our emotions?
Shadal defines love as a longing for/yearning after. He views this statement as an underlying principle for all commandments. Most commentaries disagree and consider loving God to be an independent mitzvah.
Some maintain that love of God incorporates reverence and fear and expresses itself in a single-minded loyalty and obedience. The Midrash states that loving God means doing his commandments out of love.
Rambam thinks that this love arises from intellectual exercise. Through contemplation of the awesomeness of the universe one comes closer to an understanding of--and a longing and passion to know-- its Creator. (The Song of Songs’ description of the love sick, obsessed lover is the allegorical expression of the Love between Man and God.) Furthermore, engaging other people in the discussion and praise of God in an attempt to attract them to His worship is part of the mitzvah. Indeed, a Midrash indicates that Abraham’s love of God manifest itself in converting the locals and bringing them under the wings of the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Günter Plaut stresses that “a mitzvah done in the right spirit is an act of loving God”. By performing Godly deeds we create/capture this emotion.
The Sefat Emes understands the commandment as a bolstering of courage designed to help us remove the emotional blockades that often-times prevent us from realizing the deeply-buried love of God from rising to the surface.
Franz Rosensweig notes that in the human sphere the commandment to love can come only from the lover who says to his beloved “Love Me!” In the religious sphere, “God the Lover of the Universe announces His love (of us) and demands reciprocity”-- i.e., for us to love Him in return.
A Chasidic interpretation points out that we are commanded twice in Leviticus to love human beings. Only after we have learned to love people can we come to love God. Jennifer Stein observes that the word used for relationship with fellow man is ahava (love) and not y’erah (being in awe of).Because we are all created equal, “being in awe of” is an emotion reserved for God (and parents).
“V’aseesa Hayshar V’hatov Be'aynai Hashem” (“You Should Do What is Right and Good in the Sight of God”)
This positive commandment seems unnecessary, because it is already exists in the immediately-preceding verse “You shall diligently keep the commandments of God your Lord and His Testimonies and His Statutes that He has commanded you”.
Nechama Leibowitz cites Rashi and Ramban, each of whom thinks that this is a new mitzvah of p’shara, to go above and beyond the letter of the law. The root word p’shara means to melt, dissolve; to cool, temper; to disengage, suggesting a calming down of emotions in order to arrive at a settlement. So important is this command that the Talmud Yerushalmi states that Jerusalem was destroyed because the inhabitants failed to go above and beyond the letter of the law.
Ramban further explains that the Torah includes this general commandment because it would be impossible to record every situation of human behavior. Furthermore, it is possible for a person to be a fool within the realm of observing the Torah when he acts only within the letter of the law but not with its spirit.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expands on this idea of the distinct aspects of moral life. Law is about universal principles that apply at all times and in all places. But morality is about our response to specific situations; not only what we do but in the way in which we do it, whether with humility or gentleness or tact. Morality is about how we react to people as individuals. The Torah’s demand that we do “what is right” is about responding appropriately to any one person at any one time in any one given situation.
The Torah is a book of both law and morality. The Netziv [Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva for almost forty years] points out that Sefer Berashis is called “the Book of the Upright” because it records how the Patriarchs acted in an upright manner in their dealings with all people including idolaters and strangers. Rabbi Sacks further cites the story of Rabbi Israel Friedman of Rizhn [a respected Chassidic Rebbe, 1796-1850] who asked a student how many sections there are in the Shulchan Aruch. The student replied “four” to which the Rabbi responded that there is also a fifth… to “always treat a person like a mensch”.
The prefix “B” in the phrase “B’eynai Hashem” generally is translated to mean “in” or “within”. An additional definition is “using” or “utilizing”. Translated this way, the commandment is for us to behave using “eynai Hashem”, the eyes of God, a term that means insight and deeper understanding of behavior to which God alone is privy. When we are dealing with our fellow Man, we are urged to try to use or utilize the same understanding and forgiveness that we would like God to use in judging us.