ten-commandments-heartPhilo’s Commandments (5777/2017)

The purpose of Torah, says first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, is to teach that the essence of a human being is their soul. Soul animates our bodies, and expresses our God-like nature. Through the eyes of the soul, we see the subtle world of spiritual truth, where the values of justice and goodness live.

We live well when we use our bodies to cultivate our souls. When material cravings fill us with greed and envy, we diminish the power of our souls. From Philo’s perspective, we live an impoverished life.

Torah’s deepest messages about justice and truth live in its soul. To discover the messages, Philo says, we must read beyond the Torah’s body, i.e., beyond its most literal meaning. Intellectually, the task is easy: we need only have a sense of what we are looking for. The real challenge is living into what we discern.

Earlier this week, I asked my ALEPH ordination students to discover the soul of the Ten Commandments as Philo might. Here is a sample of their insight, focusing on the first, second, and tenth commandments.

I am the LORD your God, who can liberate you from bondage to materialism. Turn towards me, and you will learn not to worship goods fashioned from the yield of the earth. If you follow the guidelines I present, you will free yourself from all envy and greed.

American friends, Philo has a message for us today. Our country seems broken; politicians motivated by greed and ambition cannot fix it. Each of us must develop our souls through spiritual study. We must discern as deeply as we can how and where justice lives. And we must learn how to extend its reach.


broken heartA Broken Heart (5776/2016) – Haftarat Yitro

A cry from a broken heart can change the world, says the Piacetzner Rebbe, writing in the Warsaw Ghetto (1940). We learn this from the famous vision of the politically active biblical Prophet Isaiah (6:1-13).

Isaiah, who believes himself unworthy to serve as a prophet, is transported up to a heavenly throne room filled with sound. The angels call out to one another, “Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole world is filled with God’s glory.” The doorposts shake from the reverberations of a caller. Isaiah hears the voice of God ask, “Whom shall I send?” And of course Isaiah responds, “Send me!”

Which sound shakes the doorposts and moves Isaiah to accept the mission? The sound of human suffering. What leads the angels to say “the whole world is filled with God’s glory?” Human responses to suffering. What is Isaiah’s inner process in this moment? He hears of the suffering of others, and his heart breaks. He has no plan, other than to say, “Put me to work, God!” But he says it, and then guidance comes.

That, says the Piacetzner, is exactly how the cry of the broken heart works. The blood freezes in our veins, he says. Meaning: we cannot act. Our old map of reality can no longer guide us. Our thought and our feeling must change. To use traditional language, we are led to repent. In this way, we take the first step to new action.


Torah of the Other (5774/2014)

Torah, says the mystical book Zohar, is the spouse of the Jewish people, and the revelation at Sinai was the wedding ceremony. Rabbi Asher Lopatin adds a contemporary spin. Marriage is a partnership between two Others. Each partner struggles to be present to someone different, trying both to accept and challenge the other.

Just as lovers should renew their relationship regularly, Rabbi Lopatin says, so should we renew our relationship to Torah. As Rashi (1040-1105) said, “If I had time, I would discover a new interpretation of Torah every day.” Years later, the Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (a.k.a the Netziv, 1816-1893) added that Torah alone is not enough. To appreciate Torah properly, we need exchange with other people, giving us new life perspectives with which to understand it.

The “Other” is a great abstract word, a metaphor that expresses an element of many types of relationship. Rabbi Lopatin has in mind the relationship between subgroups in klal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. To keep Judaism healthy, members of different Jewish movements with different perspectives must study together. Yes, different perspectives can be hard to hear. Think of Moshe, having just led the liberation from Egypt, receiving his father-in-law Yitro who says, “Son, I hear about your accomplishments from afar. You’re not doing this leadership job well. Do it my way!” Moshe may feel challenged, but he listens and experiments with Yitro’s style of delegating authority.

Where in your life can you grow by listening to the Other? Have you perhaps heard and angrily rejected a challenging view of your own self? Could you listen quietly, reflect privately, receive revelation and grow?


Commandments of Compassion (5773/2013)

Torah says: Do not take the name of the LORD your God in vain… In Kabbalistic thought, the entire world is made of Divine energy. Thus, every created thing is a manifestation of God. Some writers use the expression “name of God” to refer to any manifestation of God, so that the commandment means, “Do not take any creature in vain.” In other words: view every creature with compassion, as it is important in itself. And view every creature as pointing beyond itself, to the Divine Source.

Torah says: Remember Shabbat and keep it holy. This commandment gives an explicit list of seven workers to whom you must give a day off on Shabbat. One of the workers is “your working animal.” The fourth commandment is an early and very far-reaching piece of labor legislation that protects even the rights of oxen and donkeys. Oxen and donkeys have a number of protected rights under Biblical law.

Torah says: Honor your father and mother. Halachic thought reminds us that this is a commandment that adult children are expected to implement. So it pays special attention to the issues adults face in caring for their aging parents. What if your parent is abusive, and for self-protection you have separated yourself from him? What if your parent has significant medical needs beyond your ability, including a dementia that leads her not to recognize you? In those situations, are you required to personally care for your parent? Jewish law says, “No – you don’t personally have to be present, but you do have to make sure that care is available, and allocate resources to the best of your financial ability.”


Inner Legislation (5772/2012)

Some people wonder how the opening words of the Ten Commandments, “I am the LORD your God” could even be considered part of a commandment. They seem not to command anything. However, Rambam thought these words expressed the most important commandment of all. When he wrote his Sefer Hamitzvot — Book of Commandments — he placed these words right at the beginning, interpreting them to mean: Believe in God, and be aware of God’s presence at every moment of every day.

Some people wonder about the closing words of the commandments: “Do not covet.” Some ask: how can you legislate emotion? Others say legislating emotion is the foundation of legislating behavior. The tenth commandment tells us to work on our inner lives, refining our emotional reactions. This work makes it possible for us to keep commandments to honor parents, avoid murder, theft, adultery and false witness.

Yet — even with all this talk about transformation of consciousness framing the commandments — sometimes we act badly without self-awareness. We might forget that a business value can blind us to honouring the needs of humans created in the image of God. Or we might be so habituated to a routine that we no longer feel anything about the effects of our work.

How can we avoid a heart hardened by unconsciousness? How can we keep the presence of God before us, and place boundaries on the values that blind?


Ten Commandments Plus (5771/2011)

The Ten Commandments don’t look like any other Biblical laws. There’s no penalty for breaking them, no procedure for applying them, no variations for different cases.

Some scholars say we should read the Ten Commandments as a charter for the early Israelite spiritual community. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites agreed to a principled way of life. “We stand in God’s presence. God, our highest principle, frees us. We will honor parents; respect the spiritual space of Shabbat; treat workers fairly; avoid lying, stealing, adultery, murder and jealousy.”

I have had many experiences of Jewish spiritual community, including synagogue, chavurah, and summer camp. Each functioned best when we lived by the principles of Mt. Sinai. But each demanded more of its members than just the Ten Commandments.

If I were creating a charter for a spiritual community, I would begin with the Ten Commandments, and add four principles: (1) Because every human being is created in the image of the imageless God, avoid negative judgments that create false images of others. (2) Tell the truth with thoughtful kindness. (3) Be prepared for mistakes and the detours they cause: acknowledge, apologize, atone. (4) Never forget that each member of the community is on a path of moral and spiritual improvement.


Leadership: It Takes a Village (5768/2008)

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, and the religious leader of the nation of Midian, comes to meet the Israelites. Yitro teaches the overwhelmed leader Moshe how to delegate responsibility, and helps Moshe set up a system of governance that will work for the Israelites. Yitro also affirms the religion of Israel as his religion.

But why does Yitro himself not take on a permanent position of leadership in Israel? After all, it is Moshe’s style to make leadership a family affair, as he relies heavily on his siblings Aharon and Miriam.

Perhaps Yitro is quite advanced in years, and prefers at this time in his life, to work as a consultant. Perhaps he is modeling good leadership for Moshe: train your helpers, and then step back and let them do their jobs. Perhaps Yitro has leadership responsibilities at home. Perhaps, as one Midrash teaches, he returns home in order to teach new religious perspectives.

Perhaps, as another Midrash teaches, Yitro comes to his new faith only after empirical demonstration of God’s power against Egypt. And this kind of faith is not a strong enough example to lead the Israelites in a time of wilderness ups and downs. The Israelites need inspiration from someone who can model hope, even in difficult times.

Leadership includes governance, teaching, inspiring – and perhaps it is rare for one person to be able to do all. Even great leaders like Moshe and Yitro could not do it all. It takes a team!

Inspired by Rabbi Avroham Gordiner


Holy Wake-up Call (5767/2007)

This week’s Torah and Haftarah readings are both famous, familiar, powerful passages that have provided inspiration and comfort to Jews for millennia.  They speak of the awesome holiness (kedushah) of God, the human awe of that holiness, and the potential for the expression of that holiness through ethical behavior.

The Torah reading describes in dramatic detail the revelation at Mount Sinai. God has just brought forth the Israelites from Egypt so that they might become a holy (kadosh) nation.  Mount Sinai, covered in smoke, trembles violently.  As the people witness the smoke and lightning, they, too, tremble.  They are warned not to gaze directly upon God’s numinous splendor.  And they listen to the ethical and spiritual teachings in the Ten Commandments with which they are charged.

The haftarah describes the prophet Isaiah’s personal vision of the Lord enthroned in heaven.  Winged, fiery figures proclaim that God is “Holy (kadosh)! Holy! Holy!” The hall of God fills with smoke and its doorposts tremble.  Isaiah believes that the people have not fulfilled the ethical imperatives of the commandments, so he is dismayed to be graced with a vision of God’s numinous splendor.  And he hears that the now-corrupt nation will fall like a ravaged tree, but later regenerate, renewed, from its own stock:  “a holy (kadosh) seed.”

These passages teach that God’s awesome holy splendor can be reflected on earth, through the behavior of human beings.  Sometimes it takes terrifying events to bring us to ethical and spiritual awareness. When we act from that awareness, we are continuously renewed from seeds of holiness.

Inspired by the JPS Haftarah Commentary

Image: Sabbath Queen, by Ephraim Lilien

  1. I am challenged by the seemingly conflicting messages of commitment to ongoing spiritual and ethical growth and the concept of “non self-improvement” in the reading I recently sent you. Can I accept and be comfortable with who and where I am now, without the pressure of self-improvement work and simultaneously be committed to spiritual and ethical growth? This will take some thought.

  2. You will of course grow ethically and in all ways just as surely as children and all biological things do, and just as naturally. By just knowing that, by even contemplating your own question, you in the spiritual sense, are not so much becoming as just realizing what you already are.

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