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The Hidden Structure of the Ten Commandments: What is Judaism all about?
Hi everybody, Rabbi David Fohrman here. Today I want to talk with you about something that seems to be the bedrock of the entire Torah, and at another level, seems curiously sort of antiquated nowadays. And what I am talking about is the Ten Commandments. To lead us into that discussion, I want to try a little thought experiment with you.
You’re just boarding this long-haul flight and there is this guy Joe, sits down next to you and he is so happy to meet a proud Jews, he says, you wouldn’t mind if I asked you a couple questions, would you? And you know, you’re stuck with Joe for the rest of the flight, and Joe sits down and he says, I’ve got this question for you. If you had to boil it down for me, just like in a few sentences, what would you say your religion is all about? Just, nothing complicated, just a couple sentences. My religion is about love and whenever I think about love I just get so spiritual feeling, it’s just a greatest thing in the world. You Jews, you know, what’s your religion about?”
So you know, you’re thinking about this for a while and you said well geez, what do I say my religion is all about? Well you did learn there were all of these Law in the Torah, these commands. So you figure, well, I got laws! And Joe looked kind of puzzled, you know. His religion over here is all about love and your religion is all about laws and if you think about laws and love, love sounds a lot more exciting than laws. Joe says to you, well, I don’t get this really. What is so spiritual about laws? How does that even work?
So how would you boil down Judaism in just a couple sentences?
I think one way we can envision perhaps a better conversation with Joe would be to kind of search for an organizing principle within Judaism. Is there any natural organic thing around which all these myriad of 613 commandments revolves around? And the first thing that comes to mind is that there is an idea in the Jewish tradition that the Ten Commandments—which according to tradition, was given to Moses at Sinai in that grand event, fire-and-light show at the mountain—are a kind of Table of Contents for the entire Torah. You know, there is only ten commands and there is 613 commands throughout the whole Torah. But the logic in kind of giving those Ten Commands on a special revelation on top of a mountain is because somehow they are the organizing principle for the entire Torah. And this a very attractive notion because if there really is an organizing principle, if the Ten Commandments really are some kind of Table of Contents for the whole Torah, then you have a system. If you have a system, then you don’t have 613 random laws anymore. An organized system can be spiritual, it can be meaningful and it’s not really 613 things.
In a certain way, we look at the system and we say it’s one thing. To give you an example, you know, take the song “Rock-a-bye-baby on the tree-top.” If you imagine you somebody didn’t know that song, how do you teach them rock-a-by-baby-in-the-tree-top? So you could start and say, well, everybody listen closely: A sharp minor, B flat, C Sharp, D Major, you know, and you could teach them 75 notes. You say, now sing after me…and no one will be able to do it . Or you could sit there and actually sing the tune. If you sing the tune a couple times people would get it, they get the notes and I’m not going to have to give this class on singing rock-a-bye-baby.
And then people file out of the class and somebody says: so what did you learn today? So they said, well, I learned rock-a-bye-baby. Imagine if somebody said “how did you learn rock-a-bye-baby?” There are like 155 notes in that song. How could you possibly memorize all those notes? Obviously it’s one song, one hundred and fifty-five notes become one song.
Six hundred and thirteen commands become one Torah, right. If you look at each of these individual notes, they actually form something which is elegant; it has aesthetic qualities. The Torah has all of that. So it’s a very interesting possibility. When Joe says “ laws don’t seem very spiritual to me right. ‘Laws’ is not as good as ‘love.’” Well, it depends what you mean by laws. If laws are a system, if laws are a song, if they are designed to achieve certain ends and how it all fits together well then you could be looking at something spiritual. So, what I want to do is explore this question with you today which is: “Are the Ten Commandments in fact a Table of Contents?”
So I think when most of us think of the Ten Commandments, we don’t really think of a document that actually means much to us at all. And when I say that, I don’t mean that we don’t actually respect it. We revere the Ten Commandments but just because we revere the Ten Commandments, doesn’t mean we can actually relate to it, you know, when there is debates about separation of church and state—so we relate to it on that level as a symbol of the foundations of Western Society, but I don’t think we really relate to it as something that actually means anything to us. There is almost like an inverse relationship between reverence and relevance; the more you revere something, it seems to have nothing to do with you, it’s just something very big and gothic that is a foundation of culture. So the question is, is that the way it’s supposed to be or is the Ten Commandments actually mean something to me?”
To deal with this question, I want to go back to sort of Joe on the plane for a moment and suggest that Joe might have a second question for you. Joe says any particular narrative in the Bible, it’s very short, you know, take the Tower of Babel story. The Tower of Babel story is actually very shorter than the Torah. If you look at it, it ends in verses nine. Nine verses is not very big, this is the whole story, you know. If you imagine what this story would look like if it happened fifty years ago, you know, it’s a big deal. You’d have a lot more than nine verses for something like the Tower of Babel. So Joes says, it’s too short! How are you suppose you see anything deep in nine sentences? And I don't care how smart you are, Joe says, I don't think God could do it, I don’t think anybody could do it. So how is it that you say the Bible is deep?”
So I want to give you a possible second way of dealing with Joe’s possible question over here. It relates to this whole idea of how the Ten Commandments might relate to us. Think about it with an analogy: living space in Manhattan. You want a lot of living space in Manhattan and you tell your Real Estate agent: I don’t care how much it costs, I want this beautiful Ranch home, something like this in Manhattan.
Well, I don’t care how much money you are willing to spend, you’re simply not going to find that in Manhattan. So if you have a smart Real Estate agent, they say, well look, I can give you a lot of space to live but it’s not going to look like a Ranch House. You get it by building up. It’s going to be something like a high rise condo that you get your space. And there’s layers. And I can give you an apartment with three layers in it and that’s how you can have a lot of space.
So if you analogize to text, a short document can have a lot of information, if the text has layers of meaning. And maybe the Bible does that. You can have a tremendous amount of meaning if all these layers sort of interact with each other. Now, that sounds very ethereal. Let me try and make it a little more concrete for you and talk about some texts that sort of have these layers.
One way you can discern layers of meaning in any document is to really realize that any document sort of has two elements to it and both of those elements contribute to meaning. So, if I am looking for the meaning of the document, most of us look directly to content, but we ignore the fact that there is something else that tells us meaning and it’s sort of backhanded and that is the structure of the document. And by structure, I don’t really mean anything fancy. So, for example, if you are looking at the Declaration of Independence. So there is structure, you know. Way up here, you’ve got a title in big bold prints, there’s this big drop-cap over here that tells you are beginning things and you’ve got, over here, these indentations, and the indentations mean something. They tell us the paragraphs are beginning. And there are smaller units, right, there is periods, there is commas.
Really all this punctuations is really ways in which the author communicates how it sort of fits. And the structure is something we don’t really pay attention to. Nobody thinks about the periods and commas and paragraphs in a document. But the structure is very important in understanding the meaning of the document. There can be meaning layered into structure.
What I want to argue to you is that there is that kind of fascinating structure in the Ten Commandments itself, in this document over here—a very simple looking document. But if you look at it, there’s layers of structure and there is meta layers of structure. We’re going to try and discern those. And each layer contributes vastly more meaning than the other layer. So what you have is a relatively little content, there is not many words over here in this document, but there is a tremendous amount of meaning, a tremendous amount of information layered into it.
How do we discern layers of the document? I want to challenge you before you go on just stop, you know, take a look at the text for the Ten Commandments and just ask yourself: What are the most obvious structural features here?
So what’s the first layer of structure?