The world went silent. The birds and the animals stood still. The angels and the heavenly hosts trembled. The Creator and Master of the universe descended on Mt. Sinai to give His word to the Jewish people and, through them, to all of mankind.
Millennium later this earth-shaking event has filtered into the minds and consciousness of literally billions of people. This revelation still thunders its message to all of mankind. Specifically, the Ten Commandments, which encompasses the basic principles of the Torah, set the stage for morality and religious awareness for a majority of mankind for the last two thousand years. There is no doubt that included in these specific obligations is indispensable and eternal wisdom for all of us. What lessons was Hashem imparting to mankind at the revelation at Mt. Sinai?
I humbly offer the following answers in the name of the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Loew- c.1520-1609). To attempt to explain the Ten Commandments, on any level, is a daunting task. I hope these lines reflect even a fraction of his penetrating insights.
Hashem gave the Ten Commandments to teach us about Him (the first five of the ten) and about His prize creation, man (the second five). Let us first discuss the lessons concerning our understanding and relationship with Hashem, as expressed in the first five commandments.
1. "I am Hashem, your G-d." The first lesson man needs to know is that there is a first cause and Creator. All of existence has a divine origin and didn't come about randomly. Life has its source in the Source of all life.
2. "Do not have any other gods before Me." Secondly, even if a person believes in a Creator, he may feel that are other forces that "work together" with Hashem in running the world. This philosophy is not unpopular and takes different forms. Some people mistakenly believe that the world was set into motion and Hashem, so to speak, moved away from the active running of the world. Others believe there is some sort of cosmic partnership with other forces or beings besides Hashem. The next level of understanding that Hashem wanted to teach us is that He alone created and maintains the world.
3. "Do not take the name of Hashem, your G-d in vain." Thirdly, an awareness of the first two ideas is more theoretical and a person might feel that no honor or respect is due to Hashem, especially since He is so elevated above this physical world. Also a person might feel that his speech is not so significant and its misuse doesn't really degrade Hashem's honor. Hashem taught us that His involvement in this world should elicit a sense of awe and respect especially in the use of our words.
4. Remember the Sabbath to sanctify it." Fourthly, even if we do have a sense of respect, mankind may not feel that everything in this world is still actively being run and directed by Hashem. Of course we might realize that Hashem created the world without any forces or "partners". Even so, the day-to-day events might be hard to connect to the first cause. The laws of nature would indicate that His special providence is not active. By refraining from all creative work on the Sabbath, the Jewish people testify that ultimately He is the only source of all that transpires in this world, even today. Hashem understood that man needed to learn about His involvement in His guidance of all of creation and therefore commanded to keep the Sabbath.
5. "Honor your father and mother." Finally, there is a fallacy that needs to be refuted. People feel that although Hashem is involved on the macro level of running the world at large, He may not be involved on the micro level. Even in the most intimate environment in which a child is formed, Hashem is an active partner in making and developing life. This, too, needed to be taught to man.
All five lessons were essential for mankind to hear in order to fully understand Hashem's true relationship with the world.
The first five commandments were like an eternal seminar for mankind to properly understand and relate to his Creator.
The second five commandments relate to the relationship between man and his fellow man. What are the unique teachings included in the second five commandments concerning our obligations to our fellow man?
It is important to note that all of the following obligations flow out of the reality that man was created in Hashem's image. Without this connection to the divine, our lives lose their meaning and the second five commandments are no more than means to maintain the status quo.
6. "Do not murder." Life is sacred. Man was taught thirty-three hundred years ago that no one has the right to tamper or deny anyone else's right to existence. Hashem gives life and He doesn't want us to "play G-d" and take it away. Unfortunately, there are still many people who haven't yet learned the lesson of this commandment. (Of course there are exceptions, but we are discussing here about the general prohibition against murder.)
7. "Do not commit adultery." Secondly, even if we would never entertain the possibility of killing, man needed to be taught respect for something that is comparable to taking a person's life. Every individual has the right to develop him/herself and to actualize his/her greatness. To deny a person any situation that would facilitate these goals is comparable to denying life itself. The marital relationship is the most intense and intimate form of self-perfection. The essence of marriage is for man and woman to help each other to reach their true greatness. Adultery breaks that bond and denies their spouse their right to develop personal perfection.
8. "Do not kidnap (steal)." According to our Sages this prohibition refers not to stealing money, but to stealing people, kidnapping. This is the worst and most debilitating form of stealing. No one has the right to forcibly restrict the rights and movement of another individual. Freedom of personal rights is essential for man's development. This too is a more subtle but lesser form of denying the divine in man.
9. "Do not testify falsely." Fourthly, all of the obligations mentioned above relate to man's actions against his fellow man. However, our responsibility to our fellow man is not just in terms of deeds. We must be careful not to hurt or damage anyone with our speech. Words should be used to bring out that which is true and good, not the opposite. Words can cause terrible suffering and Hashem warned us to be careful in this area also.
10. "Do not covet your neighbor's house, wife, slave, maidservant, donkey, or anything belonging to your friend." Finally, even our thoughts towards someone else needs to be without jealousy and negativity. The tenth and final commandment teaches us that we have no right, nor does it make sense to desire. that which rightfully belongs to the other. In this final lesson, we were taught that a person may be acting and speaking positively towards his friend while in his heart he is filled with negative emotions.
It should be reiterated that these "rights" are only because we are endowed with them by our Creator. Without a divine mandate, they are very far from inalienable.
From the Maharal's explanation appears a sweeping picture of mankind's relationship with Hashem and with his fellow man. From the highest levels of belief in the One Creator to a person's most personal thoughts, the Ten Commandments calls to us to lead lives filled with awareness of Hashem and love and respect for His most precious creation, man. The Jewish people heard and accepted these eternal words years ago. May their lessons and wisdom be as fresh and exciting to us today as they were thousands of years ago.