Commentary for Ve’etchanan

11 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the second reading of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are probably the most universally well-known set of mitzvot in all of Judaism. Every Jew, no matter how religious or irreligious, can name them from memory (or at least nine out of ten). They are so well known to us, that we often take many aspects of them for granted.

The Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael asks a very simple but profound question: Why were the Ten Commandments written on two tablets? Why not one tablet? Why not three? Why not one tablet for each?

The arrangement of the Ten Commandments on the two tablets allows us to read them in two different orders. We can read them the standard way, starting with the First Commandment, then continuing down the first tablet through the Fifth Commandment, then starting to read again at the top of the second tablet with the Sixth Commandment, and reading down the second until the end. Or we could read them horizontally, starting at the top of the first tablet with the First Commandment, then continue across to the top of the second tablet with the Sixth Commandment. From there we would go back to the first tablet and read the Second Commandment, then come across to the second tablet and read the Seventh Commandment, and so on. The Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael explains that the Ten Commandments are arranged this way so that they can also be read horizontally as well as in the standard fashion.

Each of the horizontal pairs of the Ten Commandments are connected by reinforcing each other. Everyone is made in the image of God; therefore one who commits a murder defames the image of the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt.

The relationship between God and the Jewish People is often described in the Bible as a metaphorical marriage; therefore one who worships a false god is breaking the bond of his or her relationship with God, while an adulterer is sinning not just against a spouse, but against God as well, by violating a sacred relationship consecrated by God (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII).

When people enter into an agreement, whether it is a business deal with specific terms, or a social contract to not take things that belong to others, they are each counting on the divine part of the other’s nature, which comes from our relationship with God, to ensure that the terms of the agreement will be adhered to honestly (Rabbi Akiva); therefore to steal or cheat would be like falsely invoking the name of God.

By observing Shabbat, we are affirming our belief that God created the world in six days and rested on Shabbat. We stand when we sanctify Shabbat by making Kiddush on Friday Night because by reading Gen. 1:31-2:3, we are “testifying” to those events, and one should stand while testifying in a Jewish court. Therefore, one who does not observe Shabbat is falsely testifying that God did not create the world in six days and rest on Shabbat (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII). Similarly, God created the world and everything in it, so to bear false witness- to lie about events in God’s world, is to attempt to create one’s own world and reject the one God has created for us. With the rejection of God’s world also comes the rejection of our partnership with God in the world, and the Shabbat which symbolizes it.

People who covet another’s spouse might come to create a child who, not knowing who his biological father is, will fail to honor his father (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII). If the child learns his true parentage, it might cause him to lose the desire to honor his mother.   In addition to this, one who covets his neighbor’s possessions fails to honor his father and mother by not following the values that they have taught him. If someone is tempted to break one of the Ten Commandments, he or she need only think of its horizontal pair to remember how much more he or she would be sinning by doing so.

This parshah is always read on the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, called Shabbat Nachamu, after the first word of the haftarah, which means “be comforted.” After the past three weeks, culminating in Tisha B’Av, in which we focused on the tragedies that befell our ancestors, we now begin the to focus on ourselves in preparation for the High Holidays. We have sinned in the past year, but we can take comfort in the fact that God is (and always has been) on our side, working with us throughout the year to help us minimize our sins by steeling our resolve and giving us teachings such as the horizontal reading of the Ten Commandments to help us resist the temptation to sin by showing us its true cost. “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created Torah as its antidote. If you involve yourselves with Torah, you will not be delivered into its hands (Kiddushin 30b).”

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