Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro

This week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish tradition, these ten are delineated as follows and are called instead Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings.

1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
2. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and you mother that you may long endure on the land.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not commit adultery.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

People often place these commandments above others. In fact I often hear the following, “I am not that religious, but I do follow the Ten Commandments.” While contemporary culture gives these commandments such prominence, their place within Jewish tradition is far more convoluted.

It was once the case that these commandments were as central as people’s statements would suggest. During early rabbinic times the Ten Commandments were recited during the morning service alongside the Shema. However it was soon removed from the liturgy in response to sectarian claims (most likely early Christian) that these commandments were more important than all others. The rabbis however did not want people to think that these ten were of greater importance than others. All mitzvot, commandments, were binding. The rabbis argued that Judaism demands our commitment to 613 mitzvot.

Yet the rabbis were also keenly aware of the universality of the Ten Commandments’ message. This is why they taught that they were given in the wilderness, in a land claimed by no one. They also argued that they were translated into every language and that again their universal message was disseminated throughout the world. Even Shabbat contains a universal message within the rabbinic imagination.

While Shabbat might not appear to contain a message for the entire world, given our particular Jewish observance of the day, its message is of universal import. While I hesitate to use such evangelical language, Shabbat is a day that can benefit the entire world. Shabbat can offer respite for the soul. It is a day that can renew and restore. It is a day that is set apart from all others, offering us a chance for spiritual renewal and reflection.

Whether we sing Lecha Dodi and fill the day with Jewish music and prayers or just take a day to pause and reflect, Shabbat is a day that can benefit all. It is a day given to the world.

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