February 10, 2012

Many commentators have studied the structure of the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue as the Etz Hayim denominates it in Greek), seeking to understand the relationship of its parts to one another and its overall structure. There are famous debates such as the one between Maimonides and Nachmanides over whether what we know as number one (I am the Lord Your God…) is a foundational principle (Nachmanides) or a discrete mitzvah (Maimonides).

My interest is in the simple question of overall structure beyond the famous division between mitzvoth bein adam lamakom (between man/woman and God) and bein adam lichaveiro (between each other).  There is a great insight in the Drash commentary of our Etz Hayim to 20:14 (p.448): “Some see a symmetrical arrangement in the entire passage. The Decalogue begins with an abstract principle concerning thought (“I am the Lord your God”), proceeds to prohibit verbal utterances (swearing falsely) and then focuses on deeds (Shabbat, honoring parents, refraining from murder, adultery, and theft) before returning to the improper use of words (bearing false witness) and concluding with abstract thought (coveting).”

Rabbis Harold Kushner and Susan Grossman, two of the editors were once asked, who “some see” was, but neither could recall who it actually was. Let us expand on the dichotomy between speech and action.  Cultivating faith can lead to sanctified speech, which can lead to holy behavior.  But the progression does not end there.  Holy behavior can lead to careful speech and that to self-control in our thoughts.  Thought leads to action, and action leads to thought; speech is the gateway between our interior and exterior selves.  Physical practice is necessary to develop psychological self-control.  But faith, the conviction that there is a source of goodness and purpose to life in God, is foundational.  There is symmetry not only in the literary structure of the dialogue, but in the moral structure that it implies.

There is a fundamental mussar (ethics) concept, the essence of which is to never say anything uncomplimentary about anyone, ever.  Why?  Someone may have screamed when Ahmad Bradshaw did not go down on the one yard line at the end of the Super Bowl and called him a fool.  (Considering I may have done this, by all accounts I was wrong and should have instead told Bradshaw that I loved him)  Right or wrong, true or false, we want to train ourselves.  The mussar posture is if we do it here, we will soon find ourselves downward on the “slippery slope.”  The challenge is not to.  It is difficult, it is hard.  If we think about it, we can see the virtue.

I would go a step further and see this symmetrical structure as essential to our theory of the self. In contrast to the dualists who would divide body from mind or soul, Judaism generally (with apologies to Maimonides) teaches an integrated model of the self.  There is no intellect or spirit with the body and no body can live without the mind.  Body and soul are like a battery and a gadget. Neither is of any use without the other.  The Decalogue teaches a continuum of sanctified life, where ideas, words and actions are all attached, and no meaningful life can be complete without the entire package.

Of course, this perspective challenges the concept of the life of a soul before and after death.  I cannot say more here other than that the institution of Shabbat seems to be pointing us to awareness that there is more than one way to inhabit physical space.  Keeping Shabbat is at least in part a preparation for the afterlife, olam haba, a type of selfhood that is active but not through physical activity. There can be no Shabbat without the six days of labor, but it is Shabbat that gives purpose and perhaps even permanence to our labor.

Shabbat is a forshpeits of the World to Come.   When we get there it will always be "sunny and 70!  We are exposed to it weekly so we will have a feel for what it is like and maybe, maybe make us do what it takes to get there.   That is why it is said Shabbat is not a burden, it is a delight.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham