What Do The Ten Commandments Mean?
Why Are The 10 Commandments Important Today?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Why Are the Ten Commandments Important To Judaism?
Do you ever wonder what’s so special about the Ten Commandments? Why were they singled out to be part of God’s momentous speech at Mount Sinai? Why do we make such a big deal about reading them on Shavuot, or putting them up in our shuls and on our courthouses? Why do we treat them as if they are somehow more special, or more fundamental, than all of the other parts of the Torah?
The answer that’s often given is that they are more fundamental than the other parts of the Torah because they somehow represent the core ideas of the Torah. That every law in the Torah can be somehow reduced to one of these Ten Commandments. It’s as if these are the ten most essential concepts that God is trying to convey to us.
So go with that theory for a second, and now ask yourself this: What if we told you that the Ten Commandments, these ten essential concepts, do express a fundamental Torah truth, but they aren’t actually ten? That the “ten commandments” are actually one single idea – the idea, the big, central message that God wanted the Israelites to hear, the one message that the whole Torah boils down to? The most core truth at the heart of all of Judaism, as it were?
Don't you want to know: What's the one big idea??
Take a look at this course, in which Rabbi Fohrman approaches the Ten Commandments almost as an archaeologist, identifying multiple hidden layers that are baked into the text, peeling them back one by one, and revealing the single core truth that lies beneath them all.
Discover other great Shavuot videos at Aleph Beta, including ‘The Book of Ruth Explained’, ‘The Scandalous Backstory of Boaz & Ruth’, and ‘Why Do We Celebrate Shavuot Laws’
Hi, my name is Rabbi David Fohrman. Today we'll be discussing the Ten Commandments, and why they might still be relevant after 3,000 years. And we'll begin with a little story.
The Ten Commandments Definition & Meaning
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 Jew. He says, you wouldn't mind if I asked you a couple of questions, would you? And you know, you're stuck with Joe for the rest of the flight. He says, 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 think well, you did learn there were all of these laws in the Torah, these commands. So you figure, well, I got laws! And Joe looks 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 would be so spiritual about laws? How does that even work?
So what I want to talk about today is, like, what would you say to Joe? 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— that the Ten Commandments 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.
Why Are the Ten Commandments Important in Judaism?
To give you an example, you know, you take a song "Rock-a-bye-baby on the tree-top." If you imagine somebody didn't know that song, how do you teach them rock-a-bye-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 up on 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.
If you look at each one 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?"
Importance Of The Ten Commandments In Our Lives?
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, I think we have a, you know, I think we have a great deal of respect for it as a symbol of Judaism and we revere the Ten Commandments but just because we revere the Ten Commandments, doesn't mean we can actually relate to it. 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 supposed to mean something to me?"
In the last thirty days, how many moral dilemmas were you confronted with for which you looked at the Ten Commandments for guidance? You know, the answer is not that many, you haven't considered killing anybody in the last few days. It wasn't on your to-do list. The Ten Commandments talk to you, is it actually talking to you? I guess that's kind of one of the main questions I want to ask here, is this document actually relevant to me in any kind of deep spiritual sort of way? I think most of us would kind of say no.
To deal with this question, I want to go back to Joe on the plane for a moment and suggest that Joe might have a second question for you. Well if you think about it though, 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 short in the Torah. If you look at it, it ends in verse nine. Nine verses is not very big, this is the whole story, you know. If you imagine what the story would look like if it happened fifty years ago, and it's a big deal, you'd have a lot more than nine verses. So Joe says, you know, if you believe the Bible is deep, 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?" Well, what really is the answer to that?
So I want to give you a possible way of dealing with Joe's second question over here. It relates to this whole idea of how the Ten Commandments might relate to us. Think about it with an analogy: you know, a living space in Manhattan. Imagine you were really rich. And, you know, money was no object. And you want a lot of living space in Manhattan and you tell your Real Estate agent: I don't care how much it costs, can you get it? So you say well I want this beautiful Ranch home 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. How do you have to get it in Manhattan? And the answer is, 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 that to text, maybe there's layers in text as well. A short document can have a lot of information, if the text has layers of meaning. And maybe the Bible does that. Maybe there are such thing as texts that have those kind of layers. 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.
The 10 Commandments & Their Meaning
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, I just mean sort of very obvious things that contribute to understanding the document.
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 punctuation is really ways in which the author communicates not just content but structure, 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 Does the Structure of the Ten Commandments Mean?
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? The first layer is a very obvious piece of structure. What obvious structural features just jumps right out at me? And then, as you see that, take a look for a second layer of structure, and a third layer of structure. What are those layers? Let's just start with the first one: what's the first layer of structure?
Okay, so what are these various layers of structure in the Ten Commandments? How do we see them? If we just take a quick look at a visual representation of the Ten Commandments, the most obvious thing that stands out is just the fact that there are two tablets. But it doesn't have to be that way. If there was only one tablet, no one would have been terribly surprised. The fact that there is two, seems to imply that there has to be two categories. The only question is "what are those categories?"
If you just look at the Ten Commandments, the first side these are basically relationships between people and God and the second side is really about relationships between people and other people - it just seems to be true. But the question is "is the first side really about relationships between people and God?" Let's just kind of go through them,you know. The first side - "I am the Lord your God" - that's commandment number one; and that's clearly relationship between us and God. And we go to commandment number 2 - "Do not have any other gods before me" " Do not take my name in vain". These two are also about relationships between man and God. "Honour the Sabbath and keep it holy" - the Sabbath is going to be something which God wants us to honour. So, you know, so far, we've got four commands and all of these are about relationships between people and God and finally get to the fifth and last command and that's "Honour your father and mother" and that seems to be the fly in the ointment right? Because last time I checked, you know, your parents were people. And so what are they doing on this side, if this side is relationships between people and God?
So, what we really need to find is some sort of common denominator between God on the one hand, which is the first four, and parents on the other hand. I think the answer really is that we often think of God as our Creator, but God is actually just one creator because we have human creators also. So, if you think about it, the first tablet is about what we might call 'vertical relationships'. If you imagine a kind of modern art painting and if you put the person down at the bottom, you draw the parents on top, or you draw God on top and that's because we intuited that both parents and God are authority figures. We owe everything to them and therefore we're just simply not their equals. So we have relationships between authority figures on the one hand, we might call vertical relationships on tablet #1, and that suggests what tablet #2 is really about is horizontal relationships - our relationships with peers. So this is really is kind of the first layer of structure. We've just emerge with some of the facts that there is two tablets.
The next layer of structure I think comes from the fact that each of the two tablet just happens to have five commands on it. What does that imply? Maybe there is some kind of correspondence between the two sides. Maybe all of these kind of link to each other. Maybe they correspond. What I want you to think about is "why does it matter if there is a correspondence between these two sides?"
I want to come back to the Joe on the plane question which is basically "in two sentences, what do you say Judaism is about?" And that question was really asked many, many years ago in the famous story of the Talmud. A man by the name of Hillel, a great Sage of talmudic times, and a perspective convert, someone who is seeking conversion to Judaism, comes up to Hillel and said "if I stand on one foot, could you teach me the entire Torah? I am willing to learn everything but you got to give it to me while I stand on one foot." And most of the time when we think of the story, we think of it kind of as a practical joke but the one question which a prospective convert has a right to ask is " help me understand what it is all about." Hillel gave him the answer "That which you hate, don't do your fellow. That's the whole Torah. The rest is commentary."
One of the things we often confuse it with is something that Rabbi Akiva said "Love your neighbour as yourself." Hillel didn't actually say that. And one of the interesting question is why? Love your neighbour as yourself is actually a verse in the Torah. What Hillel says "That which you hate, don't do your fellow. That's the whole Torah. The rest is commentary", it doesn't say anywhere in the Torah. And one of the questions you might ask is "what's the source? Where did he even come up with that?" If you even compare these two things, there is something appealing about what Akiva says - it's about love. Love is compelling, love is appealing. Love seems stronger. It seems to be demanding more of people. It's actually a positive thing. If you think about what Hillel says, it's actually kind of negative. It doesn't really require anything. You don't have to love at all. "If I do all this, have I really loved you?" Where did Hillel come up with this?
Hillel didn't make this up. And if we understand the Ten Commandment from a structural angle, we will see the power in what it was that Hillel was trying to say. So let's come back and try to do that. We talk about one element of structure - horizontal relationships, vertical relationships. I want to talk about a second element of structure now. The notion that perhaps the two side of the tablets mirror each other. What it actually really means is that in a certain kind of profound way, there is really only five commands not ten. In other words, these things are the same idea, it's just that this expresses itself in the world of man's relationship with his creators and this over here is that idea expressed in a different world - in man's relationship with his peers.
So, the reason why there is ten commands is because there is ten expressions of five fundamental principles. Those express themselves in the two basic kind of worlds that we live in. We live in our world with our creator, we live in our world with our peers and I can find the common denominator in each of these commands and be able to extrapolate it to the basic principle. What's the line that links this idea on one side of the commandments to this idea on the other side?
What happens is the Torah both gives me a sense of relative certainty, in trying to interpret it, and understanding what's going on, and also gives me a sense of meaning, there's something deeper in each one of these commands -- there's a principle that underlies them.
So at this point, what we're really arguing is that there are only five basic principles in the Ten Commandments. There are ten discreet laws, but five basic principles that govern them. And that's because each one of these principles expresses itself in two slightly different spheres; in a sphere of vertical relationships and the sphere of horizontal relationships. So the idea will look a little bit different depending on what sphere it is expressing itself in. And the way, of course, that you identify the principles we suggested, is that you look for the common denominator - what is it that's driving each of these, what unseen principle seems to motivate both of these commands?
So, let's try that with the first one of these, right. The first command on each tablet which is "I am the Lord your God" on Tablet number one, "Do not murder" on tablet number two; and it's almost like you would express it algebraically you might say that "what failing to recognize God is within vertical relationships, murder would be in horizontal relationships." So how does that equation play out? A clue I think comes from the idea that killing a human being is a big deal in the first place. When we look into it there's something special about human beings. The language that the Torah uses to describe that that human beings are created in the image of God. That indeed is the rationale that the Torah gives for the great consequences that attaches to killing someone.
Human beings are special because they are created, so to speak, in the image of God. So if you come back to our two commands, on the one hand "I am the Lord your God" on the first tablet and the command prohibiting murder on the second tablet, one of the interesting things about it is, you know, who are you murdering? You're murdering someone created in the image of God. And who is it on the other side that we are commanded to recognize? We are commanded to recognize God himself. And of course the common denominator here is God. So does that begin to give us a clue? I think it does. So let's continue and try to flesh out this equivalency a little bit more.
So let's ask "why do people murder other people in the first place?" If I lie awake at night and I say to myself "my life is better off without Joe in the world" at that point I have a challenge in front of me which is "maybe I'll just kill Joe. Maybe I'll murder him." Now, if you think about that for a moment, that leads to some very interesting questions with respect to our creators. Do we imagine somebody saying, "My life would be better without my creator in the world"? In other words, if we transpose this into vertical relationships instead of horizontal relationships, it's not "my life would be better off without Joe in the world" maybe someone might say "my life is better off without my creator in the world." Could we imagine someone saying that? And yes we could. You could imagine that it might be more convenient to live without my creator in the world. Well, if that were the case, if I felt that way, what would my challenge be? I couldn't murder God. Next best thing I could do is I could ignore him.
If you think about murder and ignoring, there's actually something very similar about the two. They're two different ways of getting rid of someone, right? There is an objective way and that is, when you kill them. And of course there is a subjective way which is, when you ignore them. Either way, I am getting rid of the somebody. So there is a very interesting equivalence that the Torah seems to be setting up between murder on the one hand and ignoring on the other. They're really the same kinds of things.
So if we come back to the first principle, the first principle that seems to emerge the idea that when it is inconvenient to have somebody else around, whether that someone else is my creator or whether that someone else is a peer, do not give into the urge to get rid of them. Rather, recognize the existence of the other. Deal with them.
And that brings us up to commandment number two on each side which is going to be "Do not any other gods before me" and " Do not commit adultery". And when we think about the equivalency between them, if you think about adultery, it's somebody invading a committed relationship between a married man and a woman. Think about the worship of idolatry; there really is something common about them. Again, "what adultery is in horizontal relationships, idolatry is in vertical relationships". To adulterate means "to mix in something in where it doesn't belong". There is two kinds of sacred relationships. In the horizontal realm, we would call that marriage. In the vertical realm we would call that worship. These are very, very exclusive relationships and when I bring something in that doesn't belong, I can betray that relationship and destroy it. So commandment number two is, "don't do that."
And that brings us to commandment number three " Do not take my name in vain" and " Do not steal". How would you see a common denominator there? The hint for that I give you is the rabbinic interpretation of "do not steal" is very interesting. The way the rabbis interpret that as specifically a command against kidnapping, it means to take the human body. And what that seems to do is create an interesting kind of equivalence between the human's body, somehow, and God's name.
I think that mystery will give us an insight into what principle three is. And an interesting clue I think comes from the Hebrew word for "don't take God's name in vain". Interestingly, in Hebrew the word is lo tisa, which doesn't really translate as don't take. The word tisa actually means "to lift up or to carry off". It looks much more like "carrying." It's almost as if God's name is being visualized as some sort of tangible thing that you could pick up and carry off. What does it feel like when you come home and you see the policeman outside your home? You see all the yellow police tape, you see your house broken into? The shattered glass. And almost universally, people will say that "it feels like you're being violated".
And being violated is normally something we talk about in terms of ourselves; rape as a violation - our body is attacked. But what the Ten Commandment is suggesting really is that you can be violated in another way too - you can violate a relationship by taking somebody's precious things. And this really gets to the commonality between the rabbinic interpretation of stealing - which as we mentioned before is kidnapping - and taking God's name in vain. Kidnapping of course is taking a person's body.
If you think about your body, your body really is your most precious possession. Normally when you think about possessions, you think about you know, the money you have, the car you have, we don't really think about your body as a possession; you think your body is actually the thing that owns the money, the jeans, the car. But in fact that's not really true. And one of the greatest proof it's not really true is the expression that we have for our body, which is we call it 'my body'. "My body" means there is a 'me' that has the body. 'My body" is the way my sense of self gets expressed in this world and therefore it's the most important thing that I have. It's absolutely invaluable.
Well, if you think about it, what a person's body is, in horizontal relationships; God's name is in vertical relationships. God doesn't have a body. How does God's selfhood express itself in the world? Through his name. So in other words, there is a sort of two expression of self in the world. There is an abstract expression of self which is 'name';there is a concrete expression of self which is 'body' and the third principle really is,when it comes to these very precious possessions that we have, don't violate another by misappropriating those.
And that brings us to the fourth principle over here and that is " Honor the Sabbath to keep it holy" on the one hand and " Don't bear false witness against your fellow". So let's talk about why it is that we honor the Sabbath. According to Jewish tradition, honoring the Sabbath actually is an act of testimony. We're resting in recognition of the fact that God rested after having created the world. We're telling the truth about God about the most important thing we know about God, which is that he is the Creator of our world. And again, if you do the analogy, what testimony in court is with peers with horizontal relationships; keeping the Sabbath is with vertical relationships - it's telling the truth about somebody's actions. And if you don't tell the truth about someone's actions, you violate them. Why? Because actions are sort of also a possession. Actions are something that we own. It's parts of what makes us who we are. When you lie about that, it's like identity theft. You are taking some of me away from me. It's not like you're actually killing me,right? It's much more abstract than that. It's not even like you're stealing from me and attacking my possessions. But you are sort of attacking my reputation. And what this fourth principle gets to is this idea of safeguarding reputation, or safeguarding acts.
And with that we get to the fifth principle, perhaps the hardest to see of all, " Do not covet" in peer relationships and " Honor your father and mother" in vertical and Creator relationships. Somehow there's a correspondence there. What is the commonality there? It's almost as if there is a certain personality flaw it will express itself in dishonoring your parents in creator relationships, it will express itself as as coveting in peer relationships. What is that flaw? What principle emerges from these two commands?
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. 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 decided 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?
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. 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.
Hillel tries to boil down the entire Torah to one principle "that which is hateful to you, don't do to your friend". And one of the interesting questions about what Hillel says is - there is no verse in the Torah "that which is hateful to you don't do to your friend." Where did he get this from? Did he just make it up out of thin air? I think the answer is, he actually extrapolated it from the Ten Commandments. Because if you've looked at the Ten Commandment the way we've looked at it, when you boil it down to those five principles, when you boil those five principles, and you boil those principles down to one idea, what is that idea? The idea basically is "don't treat others the way you wouldn't want to be treated".
You wouldn't want to be violated. You wouldn't want your essential self to be violated. You wouldn't want your scared relationships to be violated. You wouldn't want your money to be violated. You wouldn't want your reputation to be violated. At all of these various different levels of self, we want our integrity. We don't want to be invaded. "Don't do to others what you don't want done to you" is another way of saying "don't violate people". And if you think about that principle, you could really boil it down to one word. What is that word?
That word, I don't believe is 'love'. That's a different principle, that was R' Akiva - "love your neighbor as yourself". Non-violation, we'll more easily identified, I think, not as love, but as respect. If I don't violate you, I haven't yet loved you, but I have respected you. What does it mean to respect someone? Whether that someone is God, a vertical relationship; or whether that someone is a human being, a horizontal relationship. It means not treating them as a thing that I can use for my own purposes, as something that I can invade, that I can mold to my will.
Both God in vertical relationships and people in horizontal relationships are incredibly special. God is God. And human beings are tzelem Elokim, "Godlike". You don't take Godlike things and mould them into what you want them to be. They are what they are, and what they are need to be respected.
What does it look like to relate to one of these beings without respect? What does it look like to relate to God without respect? It looks like idolatry. In idolatry, what are you worshipping? You're worshiping a thing. And the relationship that you build with an idol is worthy of a thing - the rain god, the sun god, the moon god, the totem pole; I impute some power to this thing and then I bargain with it. I try to appease it. I try to get something out of it to make my life better and the sum total of my relationship with the thing is reduced to 'what I can get out of it'.
We can relate to people that way as well - what can i get out of you? You're my colleague - maybe I can get a reference for my next job interview. If you're my date, maybe I can get a trophy wife. If you are my super popular friend, maybe I can get social status. I can manipulate you; because the only thing that really counts in this world is me. Everything else is just a tool to make me better. That is one way to view the world, but that is not the Jewish way to view the world.
What does it looks like when you don't treat them as things? What does it look like when you recognize the inherent godliness of God? When you recognize that every human being carries a little spark of godliness within them? When you relate to people this way, the way is cleared for a new kind of relationship and this brings us to R' Akiva - a relationship we can actually rightfully call love.
Love comes in two varieties; what we can call 'true love' and what we can also call 'love's imposter'. Let's take a minute to elaborate what that would mean. What is love? What is common to what I am going to call 'true love' and 'love's imposter' is that love means "the creation of a "we" out of two 'I's". Anytime you love, you're coming together with someone in some sort of way. In romantic love, that union is most obvious. Two people are actually literally come together, physically, emotionally, spiritually; but really in any kind of love relationships, that's true. We create relationships, we unify with others. We join them - when we join their team in a company, when we make friends with someone and create a kind of 'we' out of that relationship.
But anytime you join, you can join in two ways, you can join with respect or you can join without respect. When you join with respect, you honor the two "I's" that are the cornerstones of the "we". When you join without respect, the "we" crushes one or both of the two "I's". What does it look like when a "we" crushes an "I"? It can look like a lot of things. In romantic love, it can look like domestic violence. I look at you and I see any shred of independence that you manifest as betraying our relationship. How come you have your own friends? We have our friends. Why do you need your own money? We have our money. Why do you need your own time to yourself? What about us? Pretty soon you have nowhere left to breathe. All there is is "us" and the "us" strangles the "you".
Or in a regular friendship, "you need to be around me all the time". "I need to be around you all the time". Or when you join my team. What if the Rights of Passage to join my team humiliates you, makes you into a nothing? What if to get in my fraternity, you need to be hazed, you need to be broken down. All of these things are love's imposter -we create a bond, but the bond destroys you.
Ultimately, maybe R' Akiva and Hillel are not arguing, it's just one is the foundation of the other. Love, yes, love is what's it's all about but love based on what? Love based on respect. Mah de seni lach lehavrach lo taavid, "that which is hateful to you, don't do to your friend." It's the soul of any true relationship, the foundation of love, it's what Judaism is all about; and it is the attitudes and the actions that we need to bring to all of our relationships all the time and you can tell that to Joe on the plane.
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