This a text version of my sermon from day 1 of Shavuot –
There is a long standing debate about the precise date of the events that we read about in this morning’s Torah portion. Most biblical scholars believe the Exodus happened somewhere around the year 1300 BCE, give or take a couple of hundred years. If they are correct it would mean that our ancestors were standing at Sinai some 3,300 years ago when Moses walked up to the top of the mountain, and God proclaimed the words of the 10 commandments.
So it is amazing to me that 3,300 years after the words were spoken, they still remain relevant in our lives. We understand that if we can follow at least these 10 laws, we will be on the track to living a moral and ethical life. And what is more, the 10 commandments are understood as a sort of foundational guide for the basis of a civilized society, at least in western culture.
All that being said, and with all due respect, the list of laws we read this morning is 3,300 years old. Since the commandments came into being the world has changed dramatically, and the Israelites who first followed the commandments as their moral code would not even recognize the world we live in today. So this morning I would like to offer a contemporary version of the 10 commandments. This is not meant to replace the originals, but rather to help us think about how the words that Moses recorded so long ago can continue to bring meaning and guidance into our lives.
The first of the commandments – אנוכי ה׳ אלוקך – I am the Lord your God – is understood by Maimonides as a commandment about belief – we must believe in God is therefore the first of the 10. I would like to understand that in today’s terms to mean that we need to have a spiritual dimension in our lives. We are beings that exist on three levels. There is a physical level of our existence. We must eat, we must sleep, we must keep our bodies healthy in order to live. We are physical creatures living in a physical world. But we also are intellectual beings. We think, we create, we ponder, we are curious about the world around us, we problem solve – this is our intellect at work. But Judaism teaches that mind and body alone are not sufficient to live a fully human life – you also must have a soul. And without those three parts working together – body, mind, and soul – we are not complete. Commandment #1 – the spiritual dimension of life.
The second commandment is לא יהיה לך אלוקים אחרים – do not have other gods before Me. This is commonly understood as the prohibition of idol worship, long considered one of the gravest sins a Jew could commit. In our culture today we might rarely if ever be tempted to worship an actual idol. That being said there are many metaphoric idols that can creep into our lives. Money and power come to mind right away. Ego might be another. Work can become an idol. So can material goods. The list could go on an on. So commandment #2 – be aware of the idols in contemporary life, and remember it is just as much of a sin to worship them as to worship an actual idol.
The third commandment? לא תשא את שם ה׳ אלוקיך לשב – do not take God’s name in vain. I’ll understand that to mean that certain things in our lives should be sacred, and they should not be wasted. Trust would be one of those. Our relationships another. Our reputations as well. Our God given talents. When we squander these things , when we use them for vain purposes, we are less holy, we diminish ourselves, and we diminish God, in Whose image we are created.
Number four – זכור את יום השבת – remember the Sabbath day! We need time to think and be, without the constant distractions and interruptions that have become so prevalent in modern life. If we can carve out 24 hours a week to be screen free – no phones, no computers – we will be healthier, happier, and holier, and will have a deeper sense of peace about ourselves and our lives.
Five? כבד את אביך – honor your father and mother. In a world where we are living longer and longer lives, this commandment can be the basis for the moral conversation we need to have about aging with dignity. It is a complicated conversation that touches on topics as wide ranging as medical care, assisted suicide, and how ‘quality of life’ is defined. But the idea of honoring our elders can be a touchstone as we tackle these difficult issues.
Commandment #6 – לא תרצח – do not murder. For contemporary times I would like to expand this commandment beyond the scope of the individual, and understand it as applying to entire communities. There are cities all around the country with unbelievably high murder rates – Baltimore is one of them. The sixth commandment reminds us that if we live in one of these communities, even if we don’t kill someone ourselves, we should feel a sense of responsibility for what is happening, and should work to make our communities safer and less violent.
לא תנאף – is commandment #7. Do not commit adultery. In a time when marriage is being challenged on multiple fronts, and when marriage rates in America are the lowest they’ve ever been, the Torah reminds us that a committed, long term relationship with a single person is a meaningful and even more importantly sacred way to live a life.
Number eight? לא תגנב – do not steal. We have grown accustomed to having virtually everything we want. But there is a difference between what you want, and what you need. If we can remember that distinction, if we can remember what it is we truly need – health, people to share our lives with, safety, a place to live and food to eat – than we would not be tempted to take what does not belong to us.
The ninth commandment is לא תענה ברעך עד שקר – do not testify falsely. Which I will understand in this contemporary 10 commandments to be a message about truth. Sometimes it seems like truth itself is under siege today – the phrase ‘alternate facts’ comes immediately to mind. There are times when we may not know exactly what happened, or when facts are not entirely clear. But often the truth can be determined and known. The ninth commandment reminds us that truth is still a sacred value, and that when we honestly examine our lives, ourselves, and our world, the truth can often be discovered.
And finally, commandment #10 – לא תחמד – do not covet, do not be envious. Commentators have long noted that envy is one of the most destructive emotions, and can lead to the breaking of a series of other commandments, for a person who is envious might lie, steal, commit adultery, and even murder. In today’s world the best antidote to envy is gratitude, and in Judaism gratitude comes from understanding that everything we have is a gift from God.
So there you have it, my contemporary 10 commandments. Again, not to replace the originals, but with the hope of reminding us again on this Shavuot of how relevant these ancient words can still be in our lives, and of what a great gift the Torah we celebrate today truly is.