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Hidden Structure of Ten Commandments
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The Hidden Structure of the Ten Commandments: The Path to Self-Respect
So, we're up to the fifth principle. Now we’ve been trying to discern it from the two commands in vertical relationships and horizontal relationships that seem to express the principle: “Honor your parents” on the one hand, “Don’t covet” on the other. So, I think the question we really need to ask is why is it that people covet? Why is it that they so desperately want these things that other people have? Where does that come from in the human psyche?
And the Torah gives us a hint. If you look at the language that the Ten Commandments couches the command not to covet in, there is something very obsessive about the language is. It doesn’t just say “lo tachoh beyt re’echa”—“don’t covet the house of your friend.” It keeps on going: “Don’t covet his house. Don’t covet his wife. Don’t covet his manservant. Don’t covet his maid servant. Don’t covet anything that he has.” And it gets extremely specific in all these things, one thing after another thing. It’s this veritable laundry list of stuff. It’s like you feel like saying “I get it already! Why over and over again?”
And the Torah seems, I think, to suggest that there is something obsessive about the nature of coveting. Where does that come from? What lie am I telling myself that I think I am just going to be happy if I have all these things and then it never really works.
So let’s try and play this thought experiment, I call it ‘The Coveting Game.’ Imagine you are coveting something. Here is your friend Joe, right, and it turns out that Joe has this beautiful wide-screen TV and you’ve decide there is nothing you want more in life than Joe’s wide-screen TV. So you are desperate about this. And you keep on asking Joe for it and Joe just won’t sell it to you, he won’t give it to you and every time you go over to Joe’s house you just look at this wide-screen TV and you get down. You think “why can’t I have Joe's wide-screen TV?”
Eventually you go and you seek therapy for this. So you are in therapy with the Therapist and she is talking to you about coveting, about your obsessions. And finally she says to you “we could just go to Best Buy just down the block, and I could buy you a wide-screen TV with all this money that you're spending. Why don’t we just go do that?” Would that solve my coveting issue?
I think the answer is what essentially I really want is, I want to be Joe. I don’t want to be me. And the great lie I’m telling myself is that if I can just get enough of Joe’s things then I can somehow crawl out of this terrible space which I call ‘my own life’ and somehow feel as if I’m occupying a different role in the world; I am occupying Joe’s role in the world. Of course it never really works, I never really feel like Joe. So I feel like I need the next thing, and I need the next thing, then I will feel like Joe. Now, if in horizontal relationships, I was given to coveting, what would my vertical relationships look like?
Think about your parents. Why would you honor your parents? The reason why you honor your parents is because they gave you everything you have. But, what if everything you have wasn’t good enough? What if they gave me the wrong education? What if they gave me the wrong genes? The wrong DNA? What if I viewed life itself—that great gift that they gave me—as not a great gift at all. There would be no reason to give them honor. I would be resentful against them.
So if the Torah is saying “don't covet” on the one hand and “honor your parents” on the other hand, what it’s really saying is “don’t abrogate yourself.” You don’t need to seek out someone’s life and try to be Joe. And your parents did give you something immensely valuable for which you are eternally in debt to them and that is your life. That life is worthwhile. When you honor your parents, what are you really saying? You’re saying the gift they gave you was meaningful. The life they gave you was incredibly valuable. There is no greater act of self-affirmation than honoring your parents. When you honor your parents, you’re actually affirming your existence.
The fifth principle is “recognize yourself.” You do have something to honor your parents for. You don’t need to covet and try to occupy somebody else’s place in life.
What we’ve seen to this point is two layers of structure. The first layer: two tablets. The second layer: horizontal, the mirror, five principles that emerge from Ten Commandments. But there is a third layer of structure: the vertical relationship between the five principles. Can we discern any relationships in these, as we go from one to two to three to four to five? When we add up these principles, they’re not just a bunch of random principles. They relate to each other. How is it that we understand the nature of the connections between these five principles?
Here’s the two tablets. Here’s the principles that we’ve talked about. When you look at them, one fascinating thing stands out right away. Take a look at principle number one and principle number five. See any connections between them? “Don’t do away with the other,” is how the Ten Commandments begins. “Don’t do away with yourself” is how the Ten Commandments end.
And that brings us I think to the connection between the first four principles in the Ten Commands. What the Ten Commandments are really saying is “don’t violate them.” There is different levels of violation because there is different orbits of self. You know, the first level of self is your body. Don’t violate another person by destroying them. This is the prohibition against murder on the one hand, or subjective killing—ignoring.
But there is another level of self. Don’t violate marriage, idolatry, this sacred relationship, don’t violate that either. Don’t violate possessions. It’s also through robbery that I can feel violated. And then, there is something else that I own that I can feel violated which is if you take away my acts from me, it’s sort of identity theft, if you destroy my reputation. Testify truthfully about who I am. All of these things are about non-violation, sort of four concentric levels of self.
What’s the fifth command about? The fifth command is about not violating me. It’s not just other people you can’t violate. You can’t violate yourself either, which gets really, I think, to how we build self-esteem. How do you learn self-esteem? If you can’t just tell yourself how wonderful you are. I think what the Ten Commandments are saying is maybe you get it by how you treat other people. Don’t violate them. Don’t violate any of their concentric levels of self. If you do that with every other significant person in your life and you don’t violate all these different concentric levels of self, because you understand how precious and how special each of them are, at a certain point, your brain is going to kick in and you’re say “if everybody else is so special that they can’t be violated by me in any of these different kinds of ways, if everybody else has that little spark of Godliness which makes them so precious as to not be violated, maybe I have it too.” And that, I think, is the kernel from which self-esteem grows, which brings us back to Hillel.
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