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G-d spoke all these statements, saying, 'I am the Lord your G-d, Who has taken you from the Land of Egypt... (20:1-2)
These words introduce the Ten Commandments. It is a widespread custom in Ashkenazi synagogues to stand up when they are read from the Sefer Torah. 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. For example the laws of the Festivals come under Shabbat, 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 were subsequently explained and expanded in G-d's teaching Moses the meanings of the Torah over the next forty days, whose more detailed laws are recorded from Parashat Mishpatim onwards.
What exactly did the Israelites hear from G-d? Based on the above verse, the Midrash (Mechilta 20:1) brings the tradition that G-d recited all the Ten Commandments in one instant - implying that the Israelites heard all ten from G-d. However the Talmud (Makkot 24a) states that they heard only the first two directly; the remaining eight were conveyed from G-d hrough Moses. Rashi on the above verse implies how the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions may be reconciled. G-d's initial instant presentation of the Ten Commandments was heard, but not understood. His subsequent declaration of the first two Commandments was clear, and spelt out to the Israelites. The whole experience, however, was so spiritually intense that they begged to hear the rest from Moses: they said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will listen: let not G-d speak to us, less we will die" (20:16).
Why did G-d speak to the Israelites directly, but incomprehensibly, in the first place? Surely if the message was not to be understood, it would have not been worth uttering in the first place?
One clue may be found through studying the last Mitzva in the Torah - Hakhel - the Assembly, where once every seven years the King was obligated to read the Book of Deuteronomy to the entire public (Talmud: Sotah 41a). The Torah instructs this ceremony in the following way:
Assemble together the people, the men, the women, and the small children… so that they will hear, and that they will learn, and fear G-d… and be careful to fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deut. 31:12).
Of all the 613 Mitzvot, that is the only one where small children are explicitly involved. The Ramban explains that even where they do not understand, they will still ask, and want to know more. In other words, the ceremony of the King reading the Torah in public will elevate the Torah to such a high level in their own eyes, that they will be receptive to Torah education as they grow older.
This idea may be extended in the following way. When a young child is exposed to something that he cannot make sense of, something nevertheless sinks in. For example, an eight-year old boy attends a Talmud shiur together with his father. The topic, let us say, is on the complicated criteria of when a thirteen-month leap year should be declared, as expounded in Sanhedrin 12a. He did not understand anything from the shiur. Yet when he came across that Gemara ten years later, he suddenly felt comfortable and at ease. That passage meant something to him. He was in familiar and secure territory. It echoes were familiar. That brought joy to his final mastery of the hard passage, and made it yet more memorable.
Applying this principle to G-d's presentation of the Ten Commandments, He did not give the Israelites comprehensive understanding by His initial presentation of the Ten Commandments. However, the instant revelation did make a dramatic impact by imposing the taste and the spirit of G-d's Revealed Law. Like the eight-year old child, it gave a background onto which the subsequent learning of the Ten Commandments, and their breakdown into 613 mitzvot would readily fit in and be fully accepted (24:7).
In addition, the instant and initially incomprehensible revelation impressed on the Israelites the unity and wholeness of the Torah. This was to teach them - and us - that the Torah experience is only such if one is committed to observe all Mitzvot, in harmony. A person may be friendly, helpful, charitable, and of the highest integrity, but however virtuous these qualities are, they are not, by themselves, the Torah. Another individual observes the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, and sexual modesty to the last detail in the Shulchan Aruch, but he shuns and shows open contempt for those who are not in his specific religious or political circle - violating the mitzvah of loving one's neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18).
Furthermore, there are certain Mitzvot which by themselves maybe be difficult and inconvenient, but take on beauty when put into the framework of the whole Torah. Thus refraining from the numerous prohibitions of Shabbat can be demanding. But they take on new meaning when combined with the deep spiritual qualities of Shabbat - the unique atmosphere in Kabbalat Shabbat, the Kiddush and the festive Seudot, focussing on the family, guests, Zemirot, and Divrei Torah. Developing this idea, Torah observance only becomes the Torah experience in all its infinite beauty when accepted to the last detail.
This perhaps explains why a Sefer Torah that has just one letter missing does not have the intrinsic holiness of a Sefer Torah (Rambam: Yad Hachazaka - Hilchot Tefillin Ve-Mezuzzah Ve-Sefer Torah 10:1). A Torah must be whole - each letter contributes a unique input - in order to be His revealed guide to the harmony of the Creation and of how to maximize one's limited earthly existence. And the whole is worth far more than all the individual parts.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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