This week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments.
I first saw the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston when I was around six years old. DeMille took the biblical tale and gave it the full star treatment. The actual giving of the Ten Commandments in the movie was full of thunder and lightning with God speaking in a loud, thunderous voice. As a kid I sat in awe as God made His will (here it HAS to be “His”) known to the Israelites. Truly awesome.
But what if the event was different? What if at the actual moment of revelation the transmission of God’s presence was silent? What if the communication between the Israelites and God amounted to an act of mental communication, each Israelite receiving God’s message according to his or her ability? What if each pair of eyes saw the moment of God’s revelation slightly differently?
There is a kabbalistic tradition that says that the Israelites were able only to hear the first letter of the first of the commandments. Problem is, the first letter of the first commandment is “aleph” for Anochi, I am, that is, it was a letter without a sound. In other words, the communication was silent, leaving interpretation up to the individual.
The there’s a midrash that teaches, in effect, that the Torah is a thing that each Israelite saw individually, with their own eyes and perception. That each individual saw their own consciousness refracted through the presence of God among them.
These interpretations give us considerable individual space to understand the meaning of the Torah.
For me, the Torah is a living document whose presence among us serves us as both a specific guide and also as an interpretive tool. The Torah teaches us that there is such a thing as Shabbat, for example. But the Torah is also our great framework, whose contours we need to fill in. For example, the Torah says to leave the corners of your field unplowed. But the larger meaning of that rule, what it teaches about how to take care of the poor, requires our own work to figure out and to make work.
In other words, doing Torah sits very much in our own laps, a task that’s never ending and always rewarding.
This week we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. But we receive it again and again, whenever we engage in the task of unpacking its meaning.
Rabbi Phil Cohen