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These are the judgments you shall put before them. (21:1).
It is the general custom in Ashkenazi synagogues to stand up for the public reading of the Ten Commandments. A well-known reason refers to the principle expounded by Saadia Gaon: each one of the 613 mitzvot belongs to one of the Ten Commandments (see Rashi to 24:12 in this week's parasha). For example the laws of the Festivals come under the Shabbath, those of paying one's employee on time under theft and so on. Thus the Ten Commandments are the complete microcosm of Torah observance. They are subsequently explained and expanded in G-d's teaching Moses the meanings of the Torah over the next forty days, and in the more detailed laws from this week's parasha - Mishpatim onwards: opening with 'These are the judgments that you shall put before them'.
However it appears difficult to see how the Ten Commandments are representative of the 613 Mitzvot as a whole. The first three Commandments focus on the Almighty, and Man's relationship with Him - acceptance of G-d and his Presence as the Universal Power. Shabbat is followed by the remaining six Commandments that are exclusive to personal relationships. These deal with respect due to parents, and prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and coveting.
It may be suggested that the Ten Commandments serve as a dramatic curtain raiser and frame for the content of the 613 mitzvot, many of which are detailed in this parasha under: 'These are the judgments you shall put before them'. This idea is examined below.
The last six of the Ten Commandments are natural law - law which has validity everywhere. In contrast, the first three give the law common to all civilized societies the then entirely novel context. That is that they not to be followed out of merely humanist considerations, but because G-d commanded them. And the practical way of being connecting with the Creator is bridged through the fourth commandment: 'Six days shall you work and the seventh is a Sabbath to G-d' (20:9-10) - six days you strive to make the His Creation - the world - a physically better place, and on the seventh, a spiritually better place. This is Man's proactive connection with the Creator - reflected in the Rabbi's referring to the Sabbath as yesod ha-emuna - the foundations of our faith.
Thus the Ten Commandments are the first of the two gates in kabbalat ha-Torah - accepting the Torah. The outer gate is accepting G-d as the sole Creator, and picking up the natural law which is the product of experience of civilized nations. Derech eretz kodma la-Torah - common decency comes before the Torah. These are the prerequisites set into place by the Ten Commandments. G-d needed to introduce Himself with the drama of Mount Sinai. Civilized behavior, on the other hand needed no introduction, as it is well know that natural law already existed in the ancient urban societies of the Middle East.
The second gate is this parasha. After accepting G-d's majesty, who they just experienced at first hand, plus that natural law that was part of their general experience, then - and only then - they could enter the second gate of things which are legislated by the Torah, and are not always part of common human experience. It is that which distinguished the Israelites from other nations, as long as the Israelites were as least as good as other nations to begin with…
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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