How to Apply the Ten Commandments

Shevat 27 5780

I cannot repeat enough that the Torah is a book of principles for us to live by; it is not a book of rules and regulations which tend to enslave us rather than give us the freedom that the Bore Olam wants for us. This is clearly demonstrated in Parashat Mishpatim which means judgments. They are, according to my understanding, the application of the Ten Commandments to help us make the right choices and decisions in our lives. In this portion we can read 53 of these applications, which teach us our obligations toward our neighbors. As you read the judgments, I challenge you to see if you can find to which of the Ten Commandments they are referring. For example, Mishpatim begins with slavery describing what to do if you have a Hebrew slave or servant. The First Commandment is “I am YHVH your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery.”  Our Sages tell us, that if you have a slave, he becomes your master since you have to take better care of him than you do yourself. In the story of the slave who chooses to remain “forever”* with his master, the Creator is teaching us that it is slave mentality when we choose to be subordinate to a human instead of trusting in Him. *(“Forever” here means until the Jubilee year.)  

Exodus 23:1 tells us: “lo tisha shema shav : לֹא תִשָּׂא, שֵׁמַע שָׁוְא You shall not make a false report”. Compare it with the third commandment in Ex. 20:7” לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת-שֵׁם-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא  lo tisha et Shem YHVH Eloheicha lashav, Do not take the name of YHVH in vain.” It amplifies the Third Commandment which refers to the Creator while the other applies to how we treat each other. Hebrew is a wonderful language, and sadly much is lost in translation. 

The Torah uses a system called mnemonics which helps us to memorize its principles and pass them down to the next generation. For example, in Ex.20:15-17 it says “15. And if a man entices a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.  16. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins. 17. You shall not allow a sorceress to live.”  What does this last verse have to do with the first two?  It is important to keep in mind the context of the times. In mythology the sorceress had to be a virgin to retain her psychic powers. The method of mnemonics would help the Israelites remember to protect the rights of the virgin.  

Ex. 23:19 says “You will bring the best of the first-fruits of your land into the house of YHVH your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”  Again, what does to boil a kid in its mother’s milk have to do with the first fruits of the land?  Our sages have applied this to the laws of kashrut, but I do not agree with them. It had to do with superstition and idolatry from which the Creator would wean the people and slowly replace them with His principles. To bring this into perspective, the Canaanites worshipped many gods, one of whom was Ashtoreth, the goddess of fertility. Archaeologists have found small statues in Israel of a woman with many breasts. The Canaanite ritual entailed boiling a kid (baby goat) in its mother’s milk in order that she keep reproducing. It was believed that if a barren woman would then eat this kid, she could conceive. This bearing of the first fruits of a child or animal could thus be related to bringing the best of the first fruits of the land. The Bore Olam was showing the Israelites that He is the one who is the Giver of life, not the goddess of fertility.  

Next in Exodus 23:20, we read “הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ hine anochi shole’ach malach Behold I am sending an angel” … which has been interpreted to fit into theology but let’s examine what it really says. The word for angel is “malach” which also means messenger, emissary. If we read on to the end of chapter 23 in context, we understand that the Creator was sending his emissary Moses to deliver the people from Egypt. Most people, however, prefer Hocus Pocus and love to live in the clouds. The Torah brings us down to earth, wanting us to deal with things here and now. That is why these applications of the Torah are so important for us to live in the present. It does not teach a theology of escapism…“Oh, the Messiah is coming, I’ll just sit and wait for him.”

I also challenge you to examine which of the judgments relate to the decisions that you have to make on a daily basis in your lives. It is obvious that we cannot apply every judgment from that era but if, for example, we substitute the ox for a dog or a donkey for a car, they make perfect sense. You may not find a neighbor’s ox in a ditch but if you see someone stranded on a highway in need of help, stop and help them. If you cannot do anything for them, then wait until the tow truck comes. This applies even to someone we do not like. If we own a swimming pool, we are responsible to build a fence to prevent a wandering child from drowning.  

The mishpatim, judgments reiterate our responsibility toward our neighbor and community. They teach us to protect and treat animals humanely, to protect the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, the most vulnerable among us. The Torah doesn’t ask us to give them all our money but to help them to become self-sufficient. That is how the Jewish community has always functioned basing their behavior on the Torah. This community is not a social club. We pray, intercede for each other and help each other where we can. We are responsible for its upkeep. This is not a selfish mentality but one of caring for each other. The most precious gift given to us by the Bore Olam is our Free Will. When we misuse it, we have no one to blame but ourselves. When we use it wisely, it defines us and always entails responsibility.