Les tables de la Loi, Strasberg Synagogue
Justice, Religion

Shavuot #TorahForTheResistance: A Meditation on the 10 Commandments

This piece of Shavuot #TorahForTheResistance is part of a campaign by young rabbis, rabbinical students, and students of religion about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality.

As I approached the responsibility of writing “Torah for the Resistance,” I was faced with a challenge. I don’t believe that Torah study is for any purpose other than Torah study itself, a that process of opening a text which reflects on the human condition, hearing what it says and exploring those ideas, and allowing myself to grow and be changed in the process. As a teacher of Torah, my hope for anyone approaching the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai,  is that they enter the holiday with openness and curiosity, bringing all the Torah they have into conversation with whatever Torah the holiday brings this year. What revelation might come through this Torah study experience?
Since my broad Shavuot hope requires openness to the text and the process of study, I turned myself back to the center of the Torah’s revelation, the ten commandments. As I read them, I realized that previously many of them have felt distant. I didn’t really have the language to relate to belief in God (the first commandment.)  If I was not in a relationship and interested in someone other than my partner, I wouldn’t need to worry about the commandment against committing adultery (the seventh). I wasn’t particularly concerned about my likelihood to murder (the sixth).
Over the past several years these assumptions have shifted. This year, as I read through the ten commandments, I wondered, what would these mean if I assumed each of them was a reflection on some aspect of human nature and behavior? Then, as a human myself, how do these ten concepts speak to me and the tensions I see around me, in this moment? What is each commandment asking me to confront and explore? I’m honored to have this opportunity to share what I came up with.

1) I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage
אָנֹכִי ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:

I am asked to focus on the Force that brought us, as a people, out of the narrow place, Mitzrayim. More specifically, this verse speaks in the singular “you,” inviting me, as an individual to recognize how I have come to know liberation. That Source of Liberation is where I should be oriented.
Am I in service of God in a way rooted in both the personal and communal experience of freedom?

2) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth / לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת–וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ

This commandment against bowing down to sculptured images asks us: who and what are you serving?
While it is tempting to try and capture a likeness of what is “in the heavens” — to somehow hold onto it, the Power that inspires “heavenly awe” is full of nuance and cannot be captured. Be careful, don’t hold onto one idea or experience too tightly, perhaps we will miss the next opportunity for deepening.

3) You shall not take the name of Adonai in vain; Adonai will not clear one who takes God’s name in vain / לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת-שֵׁם-ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַשָּׁוְא:  כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה ה׳, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִשָּׂא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.

While I may not be in the habit of swearing in God’s name, this commandment instructs me to be careful about how I speak, especially when referencing what matters most for myself or others. Those matters — whether understood as Creation, Justice, Love or something else- have Godly touches.
Do not be flippant about them, what you speak into the world matters.

4) Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God… For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day…
זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ. שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ…כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת-יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֶת-הַיָּם וְאֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-בָּם, וַיָּנַח, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי; עַל-כֵּן, בֵּרַךְ יְהוָה אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת–וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ.

I could read this as a statement that every activist needs a break every once a week, but I think this is also a recognition of the sanctity of a cycle of work and rest. To be a human requires a lot of basic upkeep work. Cook dinner, dress your children, earn your living, speaking your truth wherever possible.
On the seventh day, pause from all of it to check in with yourselves and your commitments. Re-evaluate where and who you are serving, and why. Check in with those around you — everybody should get Shabbat.

5) Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.

כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.

Honor your literal parents, and more broadly, all the people who have worked before and around you to give you life. Recognize the imperfect people who have striven to make the world better before you got here, who wanted you to be here.
How can you show kavod — respect, care and dignity — towards these people and their efforts?

6) Don’t murder. 

לֹא תִרְצָח

Two words, this is a deceptively simple warning. But it immediately becomes murky as our American legal system, and the Torah itself, condones capital punishment and killing as an act of war.  Supposedly there is a line between between justified killing and murder. What is our responsibility as citizens of a country that enacts such violence in our names? For those vulnerable people upon whom violence is already  or has been enacted, what does it mean to push back against it? Is violence ever justified?
“Don’t murder” is not a blanket statement of pacifism, but it is a stark and simple warning that you don’t have the right to take another’s life.

7) Don’t commit adultery

לֹא תִנְאָף

Don’t violate the consensual agreements of your romantic partners, but more broadly, be faithful to those whom you are committed- family, friends, fellow seekers and strivers. There is so much that can pull us apart, this commandment invites us to lean into our commitment to community.
How can we learn to forgive, support and return to each other?

8) Don’t steal

לֹא תִגְנֹב

As Torah commentators explain, this commandment means “don’t steal anything” — not other people’s stuff, not other people’s hearts (Ibn Ezra), nor their minds (Sforno). Deceiving someone is understood as stealing someone’s mind, as your words of deceit take up mental space and influence their clear thinking. This broad understanding of theft draws our attention to all the ways that we may become aware of another person’s vulnerability. It commands us to be aware of power dynamics in our relationships.
When we become aware of another’s vulnerability, something of theirs that can be taken, or taken advantage of, we should not do it.

9) Don’t testify about your fellow as a false witness 

לֹא־תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר

I have never been a witness in a trial, but the way I speak about others has power to shape both my own credibility and how the other person is seen. We act as witnesses of each other all the time, formally and informally. This commandment requires us to be aware of the gravity of talking about other people and the power of bearing witness to each others’ true and complex lived experiences.

10) You shall not covet/desire your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

 לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

This commandment, like the first two, focuses on an internal experience. It requires us to be aware of our desires and evaluate them.
Is the object of my desire mine to seek? This is different from the commandment not to steal, it requires of us to act internally so we don’t fixate on something we might be drawn towards, which isn’t ours to have.

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