There is no readily apparent connection among each of the commandments, and it is almost impossible to figure out why these specific 10 are considered so emblematic of the rest of the mitzvot. For example, why is Shabbat one of the 10 and not Pesach? Why is not bearing false witness “in”, and the laws of, for example, tzitzit, “out”?
Moreover, aside from the content of the mitzvot, the structure of the wording is curious:
ב) אָנֹכִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
Verse 2: I am the Lord your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
Is that a commandment, or not? And why does the Aseret Hadibrot have to refer to slavery? What is the significance of the phrase “m’beit avadim” (from the house of slaves)?
And, at the other end of the text:
יד) לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ:
Verse 14: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
On an emotional level, this is a mitzvah almost impossible to keep. I understand I shouldn’t steal, but wanting things, desiring them, being envious – those are emotions. Am I really expected to control not just what I do but also what I feel – even involuntarily?
The more I think about the 10 commandments, the more I think they are really one unit, a process, a ladder or a step-by-step guide, a way of bringing a person from the “house of slavery” to the point where they can control even the pang of envy at somebody else’s possessions.
I want to state this slightly differently: the Ten Commandments are about freedom, the promise of freedom, and how to achieve it.
“I am Hashem, I took you out of Egypt” is the prelude. And, if you do these commandments, you will never again go back to the beit avadim, the house of slavery. You will achieve lives of freedom.
And the Ten Commandments are more than a just a list of mitzvot. They are – from Anochi to Lo Tachmod, from beginning to end, divine pathways to achieving liberty, self determination and authentic purpose in life.
Let me explain.
There is more than one way that people can have their freedom taken away. There are many ways of being slaves, and many ways of enslaving others.
Each one of the 10 commandments addresses an aspect of slavery in the human condition.
I will not address the aspect of freedom in each of the 10 commandments, but consider the following:
ג) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי:
Verse 3: (The second commandment) You shall have no other gods before me.
Idolatry has its roots in a world of terror and insecurity. Mankind feels puny and vulnerable before the unconquerable forces of nature – famine, flood, natural disasters occur for no reason. Avoda zara (idolatry) is a desperate attempt to appease/bribe these uncontrollable forces. It is, the rabbis say, ultimately self-serving, because it is a form of worship based on appeasing the gods that they will give you what you think you need.
But to fall into avoda zara is to become a slave. The Torah teaches that the universe has a purpose, and we do the will of our creator as best we can. Avoda zara says that the world is anarchy, purposeless – all is blind fate and random coincidence, or a world run by greedy and unpredictable forces. All we can do is hope to bribe our way through. In doing so we surrender any notion of choice, moral determinism or meaning.
Next comes the commandment of Shabbat:
ט) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ:
Verse 6: For six days you shall labor and do all your work.
For six days, not for seven. You were not born to be a slave. There is a need to work, but there is life beyond work. That is the difference between being a slave and not.
Next is to Honor One’s Parents. This is to make a statement not to cut yourself off from your origins. The gemara (talmud) in Brachot says that one is not allowed to call a slave Abba (father) or Imma (mother), even as a term of endearment. It seems that slavery robs a person of identity. It dehumanizes and makes origins and backgrounds irrelevant. When people disown their own roots, move away, lose touch, disrespect their parents and origins, it’s a step towards slavery.
And there are many similar examples. For example, the rabbis’ insistence that lo tignov (you shall not steal) in reality refers not to stealing money, but rather to kidnapping – taking someones liberty away. Adultery reduces a person to being a slave to their passion, false testimony, to a life of lies – reducing a person to being imprisoned by falsehood.
So I maintain that the point of the Aseret Hadibrot is to show us how lives of liberty on all levels – personal, moral, sexual, financial, is possible. How every human being can be released from the beit avadim, the house of slavery, in which we would otherwise live.
But what about the last commandment? Lo tachmod – you shall not covet anything that belongs to someone else?
What does that have to do with freedom?
Is it even possible?
Jealousy has everything to do with freedom, because coveting other people’s possessions is not merely about what they own, but rather it’s about the life they lead. It’s about a powerful sense of dissatisfaction, rejection, regret of one’s own life and choices, because of the seemingly more successful life that someone else is living.
The Guardian newspaper recently reported on a new book, written by a nurse who has spent many years working with patients with terminal illness. The book is called “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying” and number one on the list is the following statement:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
And the author, Bronnie Ware, explains:
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made”
When we decide what we want from life based on what others want, that our expectations of lifestyle, career, happiness, are what we read about in magazines or in the media, or we look at each other and say, “that’s success: that kind of house, that kind of job, that kind of car”, that’s bal tachmod, and that’s slavery.
You have given away your freedom, your right, your need to choose your values. Instead you have taken on other people’s. In this sense the contemporary Jewish world offers not so much freedom, as slavery.
Let me explain how I nearly allowed a good friend to ruin my life.
Over 20 years ago I was a single yeshiva student living in Efrat. A good friend from the UK was visiting Israel, so I invited him to be my guest for a Shabbat. I had recently decided to become a rabbi and he had decided to enter his family business. The gulf in our respective directions and expectations from life had never seemed to matter as much as they did on that Shabbat.
In order to make a good impression, I had invited the two of us over to a wonderful young couple who had made aliya from the USA, and were living in a small, two bedroom apartment with their two young children. The husband has given up a successful business in America, and was planning on working half the day and learning Torah half the day – and they were loving every moment of their life.
Lunch was, as I recall, a regular Efrat Shabbat lunch … some chicken, challah, kugel and so on. Nothing terrible, nothing over the top.
After lunch we left the house, and my friend let rip.
Those people are criminal he said. How dare they throw everything away? What kind of life are they giving their children? Look what they have given up – a big house, cars, enough money not to have to worry – and for what? A crammed house in the middle of nowhere?
And so we argued. What’s the point of life, I said? He’s living the dream – Israel, Torah, commitment, what more is there?
“What more is there?” he retorted. “Let me tell you what more there is. There is travel, there is freedom, there is providing your family with the best of everything, every opportunity, every advantage you can. Surrounding yourself with beauty and comfort. That’s what there is.”
For an entire week I couldn’t learn Torah. I kept thinking to myself that I had made a terrible mistake. That, in truth, that what he wanted, I wanted, too – that it sounded so wonderful, so appealing, so much better.
I began thinking I was making a mistake becoming a rabbi, I should go in to business.
But eventually I came to my senses. Why would I want to live someone else’s life? My point is not at all that my friend wanted the wrong things. Not at all. But those were not my choices. I had made my decision, I was proud, passionate committed to my choices – for the record, I still am – and yet I still remember that week as one of the most difficult of my life. I understood how envy, desire, can cause a person to live not life as they want to, but life as other people feel that we should.
Envy, at its root, is to do with a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that a profound mistake has been made. There are many reasons to want to have a better standard of living. That’s not prohibited. But to measure yourself – and not your possessions, but your life, your worth in the light of what other people own – that is to fall prey to one of the darkest and dangerous of human emotions. It is the darkest form of slavery that there is, that I have to live my life by what other people think I should be doing.
The tenth commandment tells us that we can, and we must, live life according to our decisions, not other people’s. And that takes courage, wisdom and understanding.
It’s a long and difficult process. The journey from the first commandment – the promise of freedom – to learning through keeping and studying Torah – knowing our creator and knowing ourselves – to arrive at the point when we can be so secure in our thoughts and our values that we have achieved liberation from the pressure to want what others want.