Day 9 – Wrestling with God: FOURTEEN COMMANDMENTS

9 Elul 5775
Mike Rubin

Torah Study at TBS has been a special treat that I have allowed myself to enjoy most every Saturday morning for the past decade or so, beginning in the years that Rabbi Donnell regularly led our hour long sessions in the TBS library.  Rabbi Donnell taught us to “wrestle with Torah”, in the tradition of Jacob, who wrestled with God, and was blessed at the end when God changed his name to Israel, which means “he struggles with God”.  Rabbi Donnell taught us that struggling means we do not passively accept everything in the Torah (or in our tradition), but that we also do not ignore the Torah (or our tradition), but we must take it on, challenge it, try to understand it, and then embrace what we find to be noble, and reconstruct what we cannot countenance. In his last year, Rabbi Donnell told us that the greatest gift we could give him would be to become teachers of Torah ourselves, write our own commentaries (D’vars) on the various parashahs that make up the five books of Moses.  The class took this on and a year’s full of Torah Commentaries by Rabbi Donnell’s Talmidim, are now on our Temple website. After Rabbi Cohen became our head Rabbi, she began a new tradition of having lay persons take turns with her in leading Torah Study.

While I often find great beauty, wonderful wisdom, and profound moral guidance in the Torah, I also often find things I find deeply troubling.  Perhaps the most troubling is the adulation of Abraham for obeying the voice that commanded him to slit the throat of his beloved son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice to the Lord (his willingness to obey the voice of abomination is what troubled me, even though he was spared the doing of evil at the last second).  One day in Torah Study I foolishly stated that it would be interesting someday if we take a stab at rewriting the Almighty’s commandments.  Norman Rosen, who coordinates responsibility for leading our Torah Study sessions, quickly responded, “Great, next year we will look forward to your leading Va’etchanan (the portion of Deuteronomy where Moses recites the Ten Commandments, Deut. 5:6 – 5:18), and let you have at it!”.   So that is how I came about writing my own Fourteen Commandments (I got carried away and couldn’t get it down to just ten), for discussion at TBS’ Torah Study on August 1, 2015.  It was perhaps an auspicious time to unveil new commandments, built on the ashes of the old ones, because this was the first day that Torah Study was being held in our new Temple building, fresh from the reconstruction of our old, fire damaged edifice.

At that Torah Study, I noted that I was troubled by a number of things in the Deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments.  One was that sculptured images or any likeness of anything of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth are absolutely prohibited.  I saw no reason to bar the hands of man and woman from creating beautiful things, so long as these things were not worshipped.  Another concern I had was with the visiting of the guilt of fathers upon his children to the third and fourth generation, even though the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren may be guiltless.  Similarly, I did not see why kindness should be shown to the thousandth generation of offspring of a single virtuous person, when the offspring may be the embodiment of evil.  I also was troubled with the commandment to take it easy on your slaves, since this seemed to give Divine sanction to the institution of slavery.  These were only a few of my quibbles with the Ten Commandments of our tradition and Torah.  So, guided by the spirit of what is good and noble throughout the Torah and throughout our tradition, I offered the following (which the editor of our Echoes of Elul asked that I incorporate into this Echo):

  1. You shall not obey the quiet voice that purports to be divine and whispers into your ear commands to do things your common sense tells you are despicable.
  1. You shall be tolerant of people who seem to follow (worship) other gods than you worship.
  1. You shall not act like you know the only Truth, for there are many Truths, and you have much to learn.
  1. You shall not be punished for your father’s or mother’s sins, nor shall you be elevated for their virtues, but you shall be judged by your own actions.
  1. You shall create beautiful works with the talents and intelligence that I have bestowed upon you, but you shall not be so idle as to worship your works.
  1. You shall strive to be as God, co-creators with Me in the project of repairing and perfecting the world, as I have made you in My image.
  1. You shall treat your fellow man and woman as precious as angels, for all men and women were made in My image and likeness; but know that even angels must be rebuked and restrained when they become wild and dangerous.
  1. You shall know that I the Lord am One with you and you are One with Me.
  1. You shall treat every day as precious, whether it be a Sabbath day of rest or a day when you sustain the world through your good work.
  1. You shall be mindful of the blessings I have bestowed upon you by practicing gratitude and by seeking joy and pleasure in the wonders and miracles that  are everywhere you care to look.
  1. You shall treat as holy your bonds with your soul mates, for souls that connect, also connect with Me, and illuminate the world with My Presence.
  1. You shall not be dishonest, unjust or cruel to others, and You shall repent and attempt to make amends when you fall short; and You shall forgive those who repent and make amends when they fall short in their actions with you.
  1. Those things that I have not expressly commanded, I reserve to your judgment, for I have created you with wisdom and discernment so that you may seek the knowledge of good and evil.
  1. You shall not let My commandments be a yoke of servitude upon you, for I have redeemed you from slavery, and I tolerate no slavery;  but you shall use the free will, wisdom and discernment that I have bestowed upon you, to interpret My commandments and laws to liberate your body, mind and spirit so that you may live with joy and in harmony with the Me and with the rest of My Divine creation.

So there it is.  Before presenting my Fourteen Commandments, I asked the Torah Study class to separate into groups and to take ten minutes to write their own proposed commandments, without duplicating those in the Torah.  There were many meaningful and beautiful commandments that came out of the process.  I encourage readers of this to do the same.  Afterwards I presented two questions for the group to consider:

  1. Is it blasphemous, wrong, or simply a bad idea for us to consider creating and following a different Ten Commandments than those in Deuteronomy or Exodus?
  2. Is it our duty to create our own set of commandments, whether through interpretation, selective adoption, or reconstruction?

God’s name (the Tetragrammaton) can be alternatively interpreted “I am, that I am”,  or “I will be, what I will be”.  I prefer the latter, the God of becoming.   We are echoes of all that came before us, including our scriptures.  But we are not just our past. Like Jacob before us, we engage and wrestle with our past, as we engage and wrestle with God, using the precious present moments of engagement and wrestling,  to create the future.


3 Responses to Day 9 – Wrestling with God: FOURTEEN COMMANDMENTS

  1. Carol Black August 24, 2015 at 8:24 am #

    Enjoyed your Torah Study on this topic and thank you for writing it up for the High Holidays. Reminded that we evolve and knowledge grows over centuries thus laws demands of societies require changes.

  2. Lisa litman August 24, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    I love what you came up with!

  3. Jeff Merkow August 26, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    Mike, this is so thoughtful and profound. I plan to take some time with it and revisit the 14 with an eye toward writing one or two of my own. I must confess, at the moment, I feel as if this is incredibly complete. But, then, within your formula, nothing is ever complete.
    I seriously think that you should share this article with the URJ publication of Reform Judaism. It should be shared in wider circles.
    Shana Tova,