Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Hidden Side of the Ten Commandments

On Shavuot, we celebrate God giving us the Torah, represented by the Ten Commandments. We will explore each one through a broad lens, showing how they apply to our daily lives.

Looking over the commandments, you will notice that some are phrased in the positive, e.g., keep Shabbat, while others are phrased in the negative, e.g., do not steal. For the seven commandments phrased in the negative, which tell us what not to do, we will discuss both sides: The negative – avoiding what God hates – and the hidden side, the positive – doing what He loves.

The Ten Commandments start off utilizing this pattern of polar opposites. The First Commandment, “I am Hashem your God… (Exodus 20:2)” is the positive formulation and the converse of the Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship. Perhaps this dual formulation teaches us to consider both sides of the rest of the commandments.

The First Commandment
is where God introduces Himself to us in order to have a relationship. Developing a relationship with God includes getting to know Him (Torah study), talking and listening to Him (prayer and observances), and helping His children (acts of kindness).

The Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship, is applicable even today. In excess, material goals and desires become modern day idols, compromising our relationship with God. Ask yourself, “How can I minimize the distractions in my life and make my relationship with God a priority?”

The Third Commandment: Prohibition of vain oaths with God’s name. This also includes any form of desecrating His name (chilul Hashem). The converse is sanctifying His name (kiddush Hashem). Ask, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more esteem to my people and my God?”

The Fourth Commandment: Keeping Shabbat. By setting aside mundane pursuits, Shabbat is an opportunity for spiritual renewal, through song and celebration, Torah study and prayer. It is a time to deepen our relationships with our families and with our Creator. Ask, “What can I do on Shabbat that will enable me to tap into the exalted holiness of the day?”

The Fifth Commandment: Honoring our parents. We honor them by speaking and acting respectfully, offering assistance, promptly fulfilling their reasonable requests, and calling and visiting. To illustrate, bring to mind someone for whom you have the utmost respect. Now imagine the way you would speak and act toward them. That is the way to speak and act toward our parents.

Sometimes our parents’ behavior – in the past or present – makes this commandment very challenging. When in doubt, seek guidance on how best to honor your parents in your unique situation.

When we recognize that we can never do enough for our parents, we will realize that we can never do enough for our Creator. Whatever He asks of us – for our benefit – is nothing compared to the gift of life and blessings He gives us.

We honor God in similar ways as we honor our parents: By speaking respectfully (praying with concentration and refraining from talking during the service), acting respectfully (with humility and modesty), fulfilling His requests as best we can (outlined in His Torah), and visiting Him (in the synagogue, study hall, or in His land – Israel – or by moving to Israel to be closer to our Father). Ask, “What can I do to show my devotion to my parents and to my Father?”

The Sixth Commandment: Prohibition of murder. The Sages teach that embarrassing a person is a form of murder. When we apologize after causing someone emotional pain, we invigorate them, giving back the life we took. The converse of this commandment is to give life, bringing children into the world and teaching them – especially by example – to care about God and His Torah.

There are other ways we give life. Have you ever noticed that after giving someone a sincere compliment, encouragement or help, they stand a little taller? You have just infused them with life. Ask, “Whom can I apologize to, compliment, encourage or help? Whom can I mentor and guide? How can I be a better role model to my children, and/or friends and relatives?”

The Seventh Commandment: Prohibition of adultery. This also includes other forbidden relations. God calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) and we maintain our purity by avoiding forbidden behavior and thoughts. By sanctifying the most intimate act – through the laws of Family Purity – we bring holiness to our very core. Ask, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more holiness into my life?”

The Eighth Commandment: Prohibition of stealing. Theft includes taking or damaging what is not ours, borrowing without permission, being late in agreed upon payments or withholding monies belonging to others. The converse of this commandment is to be charitable and generous, not being petty and insisting on getting everything we might be entitled to.

The towering sage, the Chafetz Chayim, writes sobering words about theft in his Sfat Tamim (quoted from, bracketed sections are mine). “If it is apparent that a particular man is committing these crimes (lying and deceiving) yet his wealth remains intact, with absolute certainty his wealth is only being preserved to his detriment, as the pasuk [verse] states (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 7:10) “and He pays back to His enemies right to their face to destroy them,” and in his end he will be despicable in Olam Haba [the next world]. He will knash his teeth, and his children will beg for food, because when money acquired illegally is intermixed with money legitimately obtained, one annihilates the other…”

A common misconception is that if a person is able to get his or her hands on money, without getting into trouble with the law, then that money is de facto legitimate and kosher. Not so. If a person violated Jewish law to get those funds, that money is still treif. Treif money burns like hot coals – both in this world and the next. The longer people hold onto ill-gotten gains, the more damage they do to themselves and their families.

In contrast, there is tremendous satisfaction in being impeccably honest and knowing that our integrity has not been sullied. When we do the right thing, as defined by Jewish law, regardless of whether anyone compels us to do so, we show God that His will is our primary focus. Instead of asking, “What can I get away with?” Ask, “What is the halacha, Jewish law? How does God want me to act in this situation?” To find out, talk to a rabbi who is an expert in Jewish law.

The Ninth Commandment: Prohibition of testifying falsely against each other. This also includes other forms of harmful speech, e.g., making hurtful remarks to people or gossiping about them. Not only is gossip forbidden, even listening to gossip is sinful. Once we realize someone is about to speak poorly about another, we can employ one of the following three strategies: (1) Change the topic, (2) tell them, “Let’s talk about something else,” or (3) end the conversation, e.g., “Gotta run. Talk to you later.” With practice, we can become adept at spotting gossip and steering clear of it.

The converse of this commandment is to be truthful and keep our word. In addition, to use our words not to tear people down, but to build them up by encouraging and complimenting them.

The opposite of being “against each other” is to avoid conflicts, whenever possible. We can do this by apologizing for our share of a disagreement and giving in a little, for the sake of peace. In addition, many times a neutral third party – a rabbi or Bet Din (Jewish court) – can resolve even a long standing dispute.

Another opposite of being “against each other” is to be for each other – to look out for the interests of others. Ask, “Whom can I help this week?” Some examples: Giving emotional, financial or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.

The Tenth Commandment: Prohibition of coveting. This includes pressuring a person to sell, or give a gift or loan.

There are other forbidden forms of harassment, e.g., bullying and intimidating people with words, threats or lawyers to get them to do what we want. Even if we have altruistic intentions, the ends do not justify the means.

Harassment of others frequently takes place with people we would not consider our competitors. Often, we do not realize the effect we have on others – especially subordinates, employees or family members – who may feel coerced by us to do things they do not want. Those who are stubborn, strong willed or have aggressive tendencies, are especially at risk of engaging in this type of sinful behavior.

The converse of coveting is appreciating what we have, and asking ourselves, “What has God already given me that I will thank Him for?”

The Ten Commandments are broad categories of the entire Torah. Many of us struggle with at least one category. Perhaps the opportunity to strengthen and repair that area is a key reason God sent our souls from Heaven into this world; it is our moment of truth. Ask, “Which commandment and its subcategories will I focus on being better in?”

Imagine a society where everyone observed the Ten Commandments; we long for such a peaceful and spiritual world. This and more will happen when the Messiah comes. By becoming living examples of the Ten Commandments, we illuminate the world with His glory, ushering in a time when, “…The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”

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