What are the Ten Commandments all about?

Friday, 21 January, 2022 - 5:16 am

If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

This week, I spoke with a young man who said: “I know that this week we will be reading the Ten Commandments. I know they are considered very important. The whole world, and certainly the Jewish People, consider the giving of the Ten Commandments to be the moment of Hashem’s revelation to the Jewish people. I also know that on Shabbat, when we will read the Torah, you will bang on the bimah, and everyone will understand that they are supposed to stand in honor of the reading of the Ten Commandments. But how does this influence my life today?

“I believe in Hashem, I don’t make idols, I keep Shabbat, respect my parents, don’t murder or steal, don’t covet either. I am, after all, a normative person. What are they, then, for me today? So I have to improve here and there? Okay. Upgrade my acquaintance with the laws of Shabbat, improve in honoring my parents, make more of an effort not to covet? Okay. But is that all?”

In response, like any good Jew, I asked him the question above: If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

Together, we reached the conclusion that perhaps we might say that the Ten Commandments are all about “vitur”. There is no good translation for this word in English. It’s a form of “giving in”, or “relinquishing”, but willingly, voluntarily. In this case, being willing to relinquish our immediate responses, our natural tendencies and inclinations.

It means relinquishing fear, in favor of faith; relinquishing the desire to do something on Shabbat, for the sake of Shabbat; giving up important things for the sake of honoring parents, relinquishing the desire to write something nasty that will reward one with pleasurable attention from others, for the sake of “Do not murder”; the desire to trick someone, for the sake of “Do not steal”, the natural tendency to covet, in favor of “Do not covet”; one’s bodily desires, for the sake of “Do not commit adultery.”

Relinquishing my basest tendencies, in favor of my most sublime ones.

In the language of chassidut this is called “bitul”, which means, in general, to be willing to negate the animal aspects in me, in favor of the divine ones.

What’s wonderful about it, is that while at the beginning there is a feeling that you are lessening yourself with every relinquishment and bitul, slowly-slowly you discover that the opposite is true: The more you minimize the animal side and enable the divine side, the bigger and more significant you become. 

So what do you say? What are the Ten Commandments all about?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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