Tomorrow morning, communities around the world will rise in body or spirit as the 10 Commandments are read aloud. Now you might be thinking, the 10 Commandments? Didn't that happen at Sinai, way back in Exodus after the Israelites crossed the sea? Among other things the book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of Torah, some even say it is our earliest midrash, others refer to it as the mishneh torah, the second Torah (a name most attributed to the Rambam's law code). The story reads more personally this time, most often as a firsthand account in the voice of Moses. And most notably in this week's parsha, rather than the great blasts, the chaos of thunder and lightning that accompanied the 10 Commandments in Exodus, here we have a much more intimate revelation, described in the text as a face to face encounter (Deut. 5:4).
While there are several notable differences between the renderings of the 10 Commandments, much remains consistent. Including the fact that it is very difficult to understand how one actually tallies up these mitzvot. What counts as a mitzvah? The list, which spans 13 verses, is hardly a checklist and would not fit neatly in a spreadsheet. Don't steal, don't lie, those seem more obvious. But things like "I am God" are a bit more amorphous. How many mitzvot are there anyway?
I was always taught 613. 248 positive commandments (Do!), and 365 negative (Don't do!). Now twice these lists have been uttered within the Torah itself and neither time suggests anything close to 613. Maybe someone somewhere can recite a list that long, but for the most part I see the number as mystically meaningful and spiritually aspirational. And I think that the rabbis understood that to be true.
My teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it this way. The reason we have so many mitzvot is not because we are meant to fill our hearts with the guilt of inadequacy for all the mitzvot we don't do, or don't even know to do, but because they are meant to help us collectively aspire to be a community rooted in kindness and compassion. No single person is responsible for all 613 mitzvot. We are each obligated to do our part. One midrash describes the person whose sole mitzvah is Sukkot. All year long she prepares for Sukkot. Growing shakh, inviting guests, waving her lulav. She is holding down Sukkot knowing that other people in her community might not have space for a sukkah. Meanwhile, in this vision, they might be holding some other mitzvah, visiting the sick or thrice daily prayer, baking challah, attending to the needs of the community.
We are seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah. The process of Heshbon HaNefesh, of our inner reflections, has begun. This Shabbat I invite you to consider which mitzvot are yours to observe in the coming year. Which mitzvot do you want to learn more about? And in so doing I invite you to lay down the old story, that your are not enough. As the Holy One says to Moses in this week's parsha, Rav lakh! You are sufficient just as you are (Deut. 326).
May this week's recitation of the 10 Commandments inspire within us curiosity, commandedness, and commitment to the practices which we feel personally bring greater holiness into our lives and our communities.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.