If We Stood at Sinai Together / Yitro & Shavuot

[By Rabbi Phyllis Berman & Rabbi Arthur Waskow *]

What if the Ten Words at Sinai were directed not to each individual separately but to our community, our society, as a whole? Does "Do not steal!" or "Do Not Commit Adultery!" come out different if it is addressed to all of us together than if it is aimed at each of us as an individual?


 In the Torah text, each of the Ten Sayings is addressed in the singular, to each person separately; not in the plural, to all at once. Since each Israelite is addressed, the real connections are not from person to person, around the circumference of the circle, but from each person to the Center, to The One Who Brought You Out of Slavery.


 Even if my neighbor betrays me, my obligation is still to behave like part of that Unity which in fact connects us. If I turn against that Unity, if I act like an alienated fragment of the Whole, I become a slave again.


We might add that perhaps each command is in the singular because to each of us the ten statements come with a different taste:


To one of us "Do not steal!" means "Do not amass wealth from insider trading or inventing untraceable and unregulated derivatives," while to another it means "Do not defraud your comrades on the kibbutz by apathy and laziness, even though you end up with no more wealth than they" and to a reader on the Internet it could mean, ”Do not use for your own benefit the wisdom you learn from a teacher while refusing even to donate the dollars to pay for the electrons and software that bring you the wisdom.”


Yet when we stand again at Sinai as we do every year when we read the "Yitro" portion of Torah and again on Shavuot, what would it mean for us to hear these Ten Sayings directed also to the community as a whole, not only to individual actions but the ones we acquiesce to  or agree to or even actively decide on -- actions of our society as a whole?.


Let us look at each of the Sayings in this light:


 1. "I YHWH your God Who brought you out of slavery..." Because you saw yourselves as a community, because each of you reached toward the Wholeness by seeing your neighbors as a part of you, bone of your bone,

together you became for at least a moment part of the great "I." That I is the Breath of Life, Whose Name can only be pronounced ("YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh") by breathing.


 And when you make yourselves part of that great "I," you become free. No Pharaoh, no boss, no army of occupation, no central committee, no President or Prime Minister, no corporation can rule over you.”


 Whatever you think a "god" is, only the great "I", the One of which your whole community is a part, but only a part, is to be treated that way.


 2. You shall not carve out for yourselves a piece of the world, a part of the Whole, and worship it as if it were the Whole. Not even yourselves, not even your community! Do not put a fence around your people and say "We're it!" or "We are one!" Nothing is One except the Whole.


 Children are crucial to the Breath of Life, but if you treat your own children as if they were divine, and treat other children as if they did not count, then your children will suffer. But a community that loves its own and all other children as part of the great Breath of Life, that sees all children as deserving of love and nurture, that community will feel My love for a thousand generations.


 3. Do not lift up My Name empty-hearted, empty-headed, empty-handed. My Name YHWH is the Breath of Life. Every time you breathe, remember Who I am. Remember that you are breathing in what the trees breathe out, that you are breathing out what the trees breathe in. If you breathe out poison, you will poison the trees, and when they breathe out, they will poison you. All of us breathe each other into existence. If you breathe without remembering this, you are emptying yourselves of life and meaning.


 4. Remember Shabbat. "Doing" is necessary, but so is "being." Your community has done great work, is building great cities, is binding the planet together. But if you do this without ever pausing to reflect, you will talk about "modernization" when you mean better engines for destroying all life. Take a day off, take a year off, stop your centers of research and development for a while, to think about what it is all about. To sing and celebrate. Then, when you start work again, it will be work that creates instead of destroying.

 5. Honor your parents. Make sure that they all live well and joyfully, not some in despair and others in power. You still spend 100 times as much every year on research toward mass murder as you do on seeking cures for Alzheimer's disease.

 6. Don't murder. Those of you who as individuals would be horrified to beat a dog to death are, as a community, spending one-tenth of your incomes on preparing to burn, poison, vaporize, bludgeon millions of children that you have no grudge against. Don't tell Me that you have no choice, "they" are doing it too, that's the way the world is. What are you doing to change it, to change "them" as well as "us"? How much are you spending even on the research about how to change it? Don't tell Me war isn't murder. If you haven't worked on figuring out how to prevent it, war is murder.


 7. Don't commit adultery. Now, you say, that one a community can't do; only individuals. Not so, say I. As a community, you have given up on developing a decent, practical, loving sexual ethic, and that drives individuals into sexual craziness on their own. Just as once upon a time you outlawed marriage for Black slaves and then condemned them for promiscuity, so now you do with lesbians and gays. On the day your whole society makes it possible for gay and lesbian people to be married, you will have taken a big communal step toward ending "adultery." And on the day your whole society teaches adolescents the truths of a full, loving, ethical sexuality,  you will have taken another big communal step toward ending "adultery."



8. Don't steal. As a community, you are stealing the labor and intelligence of people who want to start their own small businesses, and can't find the investment capital. Why not? Because they are women, or poor, or young, and because the investment capital is being sucked up into billion-dollar leveraged buy-outs that add not a dime's worth of productivity to the world. Now that's stealing! Instead, set up revolving loan funds to help start mom-and-pop neighborhood recycling businesses, co-op groceries, worker-owned bicycle factories. Don't give the money away, just lend it.


9. Don't swear falsely against your neighbor. When the FBI builds files on nonviolent opponents of an officially approved war on the grounds that they are spies, or security risks, or saboteurs, what do you think they are doing? When a corporation blacklists a union organizer because she has fought against pollution in the workplace, what do you think that is?


 10. Don't covet what belongs to your neighbor. Have you watched the television ads lately? Or the TV programs themselves? They use the most clever techniques of modern psychology to teach envy, instill envy. Turn your science toward teaching how to share, turn your tax system to rewarding those who share.


Then all the people, the whole people, saw.


* Berman was for a dozen years director of summer program for Elat Chayyim Center for Healing & Renewal. She was co-author of Tales of Tikkun; Freedom Journeys; A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven;  and The Tent of Abraham. She co-founded (1979) and co-directs the Riverside Learning Program, an innovative and renowned school for adult immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center and is the author of 22 books, including The Freedom Seder, Seasons of Our Joy, Godwrestling -- Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism.










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