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I know a brilliant woman whose hearing started to disappear in her early years. She turned from sound to mostly visual input: her library is so vast she has a card catalog of several thousand books and knows where each one is. But because sound was so suppressed, she had a much larger visual vocabulary than an aural one: she knew words in her head but had never heard them spoken. Sometimes when she tries to use one of those words in discussion, it is a challenge to understand it (but always worth it when we succeed). It’s not unlike my sister, who was a precocious young reader and sometimes didn’t know how to pronounce words she read. One day, she described something ugly as both hideous and hideous. But one version was pronounced correctly, with a short “i” while the other had a long one.
So often our senses tell us one thing and the vastness of interpretation tells us something else. So it is with the major focus of this week’s torah portion, Yitro, where Moses goes up the mountain and we receive the revelation of the Aseret Dibrot. Those last two words are usually translated as the Ten Commandments. Aseret certainly means ten. But that word dibrot has never meant commandments: it means, generally, words, things, ideas, concepts. Commandments are generally mitzvot. So calling these word the Ten Commandments is really a misnomer or mistranslation – and even a misunderstanding of what the ten things really were.
My teacher Rabbi Haim Ovadia wrote this week in a brilliant essay on Facebook (friend him and read it there) about two ideas that resonated to my essence. First, he pointed out the importance of recognizing that these aseret dibrot are concepts, not commandments.
But he also pointed out that the only one of these concepts that was actually new was the one about not coveting—everything else we’d learned before. So here we are, he tells us, at the mountain, seeing sounds: the thunder, feeling the earth shake under our feet. This is a big deal—for what? Ideas we already knew? This is how the Holy One uses such spectacle?
R. Ovadia’s point is that the Ten Concepts are much bigger than ten simple commandments, they are a way of looking at how we can—even should—live our lives and that these concepts will help us connect to the energy that bends toward good, and to each other in a peaceful way, a loving way, a way that reminds us that we are all made in the image of the Holy, so that none of us is better than the other, and that we have work to do to live up to our share of the divine image.
In these words, I heard the true beginning of Mussar work in our tradition. Mussar is the psychospiritual practice of ancient and modern Judaism that helps us look at our behavior from outside ourselves and from an awareness that we are part of the universe of morality, goodness and the opportunity to do better. using the Aseret Dibrot as a blueprint gives us early direction.
Once we remember and acknowledge the oneness of the energy that is the goodness of the world, and recognize that idols, false gods, are our excuse not to listen to the voice of good within us (think greed, power, wealth turned toward self-aggrandizement), we start remembering that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Holy One, with a divine spark. And once we recognize that, know it in our bones, this knowledge has to change how we think of our fellow human beings. Rather than being Other, they are just like us—made from the same stamp, and yet with their own journey. And once we have internalized this, the next steps come into view.
These Ten Concepts together lead inexorably to spiritual practices and behaviors that ask us to be better than we were, and that could indeed lead to peace in our homes, in our relationships and in our world. As John Lennon wrote,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.
If we can recognize that we are all on this planet together, and we are blessed with our lives, and we can’t make up the rules just to make ourselves happy in the moment, then most of the rest will follow. None of this is easy. It all goes against our human grain: we are jealous, we are impassioned, we covet, we want, we want, we want. That’s why we need a road map, such as our Torah.
But we have to do the work. Sometimes honoring our parents can be hard, especially when we’re teenagers. Sometimes we can’t help but want what we want. But recognizing the missteps, picking ourselves up and making course corrections are all parts of our task: to walk the path toward making ourselves and our world better. It’s the work of a lifetime, not of a New Year’s resolution, here this week and gone by February.
Rather than hearing these words as commandments—orders from on high, let us view them as the lamps or candles illuminating our path, that we might be able to open ourselves to new exploration and new pathways.
 Part of me feels uncomfortable using these lyrics as prooftext for how the Ten Words/Concepts speak about peace, since other lyrics speak to “Imagine no religion… nothing to live or die for.” But I hope John Lennon forgives me.