A Dvar Torah, literally “word of Torah,” is a sermon. In Reform Judaism, anyone is qualified to give a Dvar Torah. Here’s one from a teen perspective.
|The Ten Commandments, in the Torah scroll.|
Sorry the words are upside down. I was standing
on the opposite side of the table.
Dvar Torah on The Ten Commandments
When looking at the ten commandments, as contained in this portion of the Torah, there are many ways to approach it. You can examine them as a whole, or you can look at each commandment at a time, or a combination of both. I chose this third option, and so we begin.
The first commandment, while the shortest, is also the most interesting, as it isn’t really phrased as a command. “I am Adonai your God,” period. No further instructions, and the logical following point, “Thou shalt have no gods other than me” is considered a commandment on its own. So why do we include this separately? Why in fact, was this included at all? It’s not a new statement – God says it many times – and it appears to serve little to no function. So why is it here?
Rabbinic and Christian scholars have puzzled and written about this one phrase for centuries, offering interpretations and theories that answer this question. However I have my own answer.
This phrase, first, is a reminder. I am Adonai. I am eternal. I am forever. I am omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and everything else that starts with omni. I am all-powerful, and all-knowing, and I am your God!
Your God. I am your God. I am the God of you.
This is the second half of this phrase – a promise. God is well-known for making covenants throughout the Torah, but this is his subtlest one yet. I am your God. I will serve you and protect you, care for you and guide you, show you the way to a good life and happiness. I will be yours forever, if you are mine. Every time, before or since, that God says he is our God, he is reminding us of this covenant. He will give us everything, as long as we serve him, and the following commandments tell us exactly how to do that.
We move on, then, to the second commandment, “Thou shalt worship no other gods before me.” This could be considered the actual first commandment, as it is the first one to actually give us something to do. Or, not do. It is clear and concise. However, it never could really be the first commandment, because it follows directly from the promise in “I am Adonai your God”. God will serve and protect us, as long as we do what for him? Well, how can you sum up this commandment? I believe it can be done in one word: loyalty.
God doesn’t want anything material from us, at least not at this basic level. He wants us to be loyal to him, as any friend should be loyal to a friend, and in return he will protect us and help us as no earthly friend every could.
The third commandment also ties into this, with not taking God’s name in vain. That is the other part of what God wants for himself: respect. As long as we show God our loyalty and respect for him, he will show loyalty and respect to us.
These three commandments are the only ones of the ten that really refer to God. Sure. The other ones may give God as a reason behind their commands, but these three are the only ones that really describe our relationship with him. And there’s a reason for that: this is all that God needs. As long as we show him his loyalty and respect that he wants, he’s happy, and can move on to commandments about us.
The next commandment, the fourth one, says that we should observe the Sabbath, working for six days and resting on the seventh. On the face of it, the way it’s described in the Torah seems like it’s another way of connecting back to God. He took a day off, so we should take a day off. It looks like it’s meant to keep God present in our thoughts every week, as we’re relaxing on the beach.
However, that is not what this commandment actually is. The mention of God is simply to give the more argumentative people a reason to do it. The reason behind this commandment is actually, simply, that God gave us a gift. We had promised that we’d be loyal and respect him, so he wanted to show us his respect as well, by allowing us a day off. He gave us a day to not work ourselves to death, to not have our hearts burst from exhaustion, but rather lay back in quiet contentment and thoughtful reverie. He gave us a day to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, or to just let our minds drift as we pleased. It is a gift to us, and it is one of many.
The next commandment is the first one that really relates how we should react to each other. This is, “Honor thy father and thy mother”. This continues the theme of respect and loyalty that the others have already shown, except that this time, it is toward each other, not toward God or God toward us. The next five commandments also show this, telling us that we must not kill, we must not commit adultery, we must not steal, we must not bear false witness, and we must not covet. While the fifth commandment tells us what we should do, these commandments tell us exactly what we should not do to each other. However, all six of these can answer one question: how does God expect us to act towards each other?
The answer? With the same respect and loyalty that we show him. God is saying, through these commandments, that each human being deserves the exact same treatment as we would give to God himself. And through this, they form the basis for our rights. The right to sit safely and not be in danger of death. The right to not have your heart broken by someone you love. The right to not have to constantly protect your stuff for fear of it being stolen. The right to have the truth come out, when one of those crimes is committed. And the right to self control, to be happy with oneself and what one has, and to not interminably chase others.
Though not all of these things can be found in the constitution, they can be found in any usual person’s moral code, and all deal with the basic respect and loyalty that we believe, and God believes as well, that each human being deserves. In fact, in countries where these basic things are not given, we are outraged, and sorrowful at the horror of what is happening.
All of the ten commandments link, in some way or another, back to the promise of the first and back to two words: loyalty and respect. The two things that any friend should show to another, that children should show to their parents in exchange for all the parents have done, and the things that we should show God and show each other.
Thus as our final question, we may ask: if these are so prevalent in our world, why do we need reminding of them in the ten commandments at all?
When you walk out of here tonight, turn on your radio, and listen to a debate about gay marriage. Or hear about the police shooting a young black, man, or how a terrorist blew up a passenger plane. Please, if you do hear these things, take a moment and give these people the respect that they are not receiving, or did not receive in life. This respect and loyalty to our fellow human beings, that sometimes, even God needs to remind us all to give.
Written and delivered by Youngest Daughter at her
Synagogue Confirmation Service, May 2015
I hope you are now singing Aretha Franklin for the rest of the day. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me.” (sock it to me, sock it to me…)
|See, when I rotate the photo so the words are right-side up,|
it looks like we have glued the Torah to the ceiling.
And that would just be WRONG.
|Younger Daughter delivering her Dvar Torah|