Some Shavu’ot thoughts

May 18, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes about Shavu’ot.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

THE TWO LEVELS OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Ten Commandments have two levels, public and private.

On the public level, they are an ethos for states and communities (the Rosh HaShanah liturgy, in fact, speaks of all nations being assessed by God on the day of judgment).

A quality society is answerable to God. If a society lives by His will there will be safety and security for everyone regardless of creed, colour or conviction.

There will be peace since we all have the same right to the sunlight. There will be justice since we all deserve dignity and respect. There will be amity between nations since no state is inherently more valuable than any other.

Some nations are openly atheistic, but they should note the words of God quoted in the Talmud, “Let them forget My name but live by My rules”.

The private level insists that individuals measure themselves by the Commandments.

Some people blithely say, “I’m not religious but I do keep the Ten Commandments”. How nice – even people who (mistakenly) think they aren’t religious still honour the Decalogue, as if it weren’t religious.

In fact the Ten Commandments are one of the most religious documents we have. They constantly mention God, they speak of the Sabbath, they imply that a life without God is a life without standards.

LONG & SHORT COMMANDMENTS

The first five of the Ten Commandments are much lengthier than the second five.

Rabbi Solomon Goldman says, “What has made these commandments unique is… the terseness and conciseness of language. They whiz, as it were, through the air and strike the conscience of man like an arrow its target”.

The staccato phraseology is highly effective – no ifs and buts, no qualifications or conditions.

Yes, each commandment can be analysed and debated, for example the law against killing. Does it mean killing or murdering? Is there any exception in time of war? Does it apply to the unborn child? Are some types of killing more insidious? Does it apply to animals, even to insects?

Take the law against stealing. Does it mean stealing a thing or stealing a person, does it include stealing from yourself, or stealing when the owner of the item knows nothing about it? Does it include stealing someone’s dignity or pride?

Each of these five laws has problems of application, so what the Decalogue gives us is a headline. But the headline says enough.

“God Almighty hath said in a voice that goeth thundering through the centuries, ‘Thou shalt not. Never!'”

SHABBAT WAS INTACT

The Shabbat morning prayers say that Moses held the tablets of the Ten Commandments in his hand and on them was written the law of Shabbat.

The Sadigorer Rebbe asks, surely there were nine other laws on the tablets, not just Shabbat!

He answers that when Moses dropped the first set of tablets the shards went everywhere but the commandment about Shabbat remained intact.

Nothing can destroy Shabbat, says the Rebbe … but actually the Jewish people can destroy it if they forget the opening words, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.

IT JUST CAN’T HAPPEN

The Ten Plagues. The Ten Commandments. Both are miraculous.

The miracle of the plagues was brought about by God. The miracle of the commandments will be brought about by man.

If anyone had been told that water would turn into blood, that all the firstborn would die, they would have said, “Impossible! Things like that just don’t happen!”

But they did happen, and that was the miracle that released the Israelites from bondage.

Think about the Ten Commandments. No murder, no stealing, no twisting of the truth… Ask anyone if such things are possible and they will tell you, “Not a chance! Such things will never happen!”

But they can, and they will – if human beings want them enough.

The Midrash in P’sikta d’Rav Kahana says that when the Torah informs us that the Israelites did not pass through “derech eretz P’lishtim”, “the way of the land of the Philistines” (Ex. 13:17), there is another way of translating “derech eretz”… not as “the trans-Philistine highway” but “the way of the land, the way things usually happen”.

If people can think out of the box and change the tired old sinful way that human society works, the Ten Commandments can come true and the world will be redeemed.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

Comments

One Response to “Some Shavu’ot thoughts”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    A great article………saved to my notes.
    A recent High Court finding against a non-Jewish client brings to mind a Jewish QC who claimed to be an atheist…
    The Torah says (Deuteronomy 19:15): “One witness shall not arise against a man for any sin or guilt that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.” Thus, two witnesses provide conclusive proof of reality, but one witness does not.

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