Ten Commandments aim to ensure that yesterday’s slaves do not become evil masters
by Avraham Burg
On the sixth day of Sivan, in the year of the Exodus from Egypt, the former slaves gathered at the foot of the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments; ten defining commandments from God. The commandments are fascinating both in what they say and in what they choose not to mention.
The Commandments attach sanctity to holidays and history - “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt - and not to places, temples or people. Also, the Commandments indicate a normative relationship with one’s friends, surroundings and Creator, without saying anything about the relationship with government, the sovereign, or any other human authority.
Unlike many biblical narratives that are intentionally set outside of any specific historical time, for “there is no ‘early’ or ‘late’ in the Torah,” the Ten Commandments are fixed in their specific time and place: exactly forty nine days after the Exodus from Egypt at the foot of Mt. Sinai (very soon after leaving and a long while before finally reaching the Promised Land.)
Why so? Any reasonably intelligent reader grasps that those few dramatic weeks that elapsed from that fatal moment when centuries of bondage ended were hardly sufficient to negate the experiences of slavery or to counterbalance them. It is obvious that many generations have to pass in order to rectify the results of national trauma on such a scale.
It is equally obvious that, less than two months after the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt ended unexpectedly and miraculously, they could not have been expected to understand, assimilate or apply those absolute values of freedom expressed in the declaration of independence to which they pledged allegiance at Mt. Sinai.
Nevertheless, the timing is of immense importance for creating the foundations of values which would become the underpinnings for Jewish culture throughout the ages. At the time, the covenant was contracted between God on the giving end and the people on the receiving end; eventually, it became a contract of basic social existence, for controlling our sometimes animal instincts, overcoming desire, and subjugating power and force.
When we in modern day Israel talk about the chances of reaching an agreed constitution, the discussion nearly always peters out in a collective sigh of “oh, well, too bad.” Too bad that Ben-Gurion failed to draft a constitution back in 1948. Things that are feasible upon the establishment of a state often become impossible over the intricate course of life.
This was understood quite well by God and Moses, who therefore proceeded to articulate the first stage of the constitution at the very first opportune moment. The principles underlying the Ten Commandments, along with the way in which they were delivered, make them one of the most relevant events for modern man, and a good point of departure for the renewal of the Jewish spirit in our time.
They – God via Moses - addressed, in the first person, each individual who was present at that event, and, through them, each and every one of us. God addressed not the collective but each individual conscience.
You shall not murder” – yes, you! “Honor your” father and your mother” – your own, personal parents. “I the Lord am your God” – it’s between the two of us, all alone, intimately, without the corrupting mediation of the establishment and its organizations.
Hence, the Ten Commandments are a Law for the individual; for the individual’s rights and liberty.
In the circumstances of contemporary life during this festival, it becomes evident that the Ten Commandments can serve as a moral platform for a new relationship between individuals. What is a covenant between individuals? There are two basic methods for the governance of society. One is by metaorganization: state, community, or ghetto where the source of power and authority filter down from the organization to the individuals.
Another method is a social, constitutional agreement upon the basic rights of each human being, which can never be compromised. Men and women have innate liberties of which they cannot be deprived, under any circumstances whatsoever. The social organization of individuals sanctifies the rights of the individual just as we dreamt of in Egypt, and just as we pledged at Sinai.
Henceforth, the Exodus from Egypt will no longer be merely a heroic, symbolic slave uprising but an effort toward a renewed beginning for human culture and interaction. The totalitarianism and tyranny of the Egyptian empire left no room for individual sense of self or personal liberty. In this sense the violent empire and the beast of prey are identical: inhuman creatures, insatiable, with uncontrollable desires.
Such animal totality is the object of the rebellion by Moses and the Israelites, with the Ten Commandments as its alternative: from bondage to freedom. But not to be free of one’s shackles only to become a savage, driven by animal appetites; on the contrary, the Israelite who signed that accord committed to being a free man who can curb his own whims, by choice. Not to kill, or steal or do other things harmful to the liberty of others.
In contradistinction to the Egyptian monarchy with insatiable desire for unlimited power, we set up a model existence of a human being who is attentive and sensitive to his or her surroundings, with the freedom to master his or her instincts and not to live at the mercy of animal appetites.
The values of the Ten Commandments are set up in order to create a better future, ensure that yesterday’s slaves do not become the evil masters of tomorrow. This is not just a chapter in the history of a nation and of Egypt; it is a call for the utopia for which every human reality must strive. For we are the citizens of the new, alternative empire; the empire of Israeli values, which came into being in the desert but has yet to fully manifest itself.
The piece originally appeared in Tikun Olam, a collection of articles published by The New Israel Fund on the occasion of Shavuot. All the articles are available here