We often make reference to ‘the Ten Commandments’, those famous words uttered by G-d, that were etched into the stone tablets at Mount Sinai. The problem is there were never any ‘commandments’ uttered. In Talmudic literature they are referred to as the עשרת הדברות, the ‘Ten Expressions’ or ‘Utterances’, and never once as the עשרת המצות, the ‘Ten Commandments’.
Truth be told, even the term עשרת הדברות, ‘Ten Expressions’, appears nowhere in all of the Written Torah. The phrase, used merely three times throughout the entire Torah, to describe these utterances is: עשרת הדברים, the ‘Ten Statements’ or perhaps, ‘Ten Things’.
Isn’t it strange that both the Midrash and Talmud consistently avoid using the exact term the Torah utilized?
Rabbi Shimshon ben Tzadok, a thirteenth century scholar and disciple of the renowned Maharam of Rothenberg, in his work the Tashbetz, records many fabulous teachings he absorbed from his great master during his teacher’s seven year imprisonment in the infamous fortress of Ensisheim, where the Maharam eventually died in captivity.
He transmits the following teaching that addresses precisely this oddity of the Talmud’s departure from the Torah’s accurate term for these עשרת ה'דברים':
The word 'דברות' is numerically equal to 612, one short of the sum total of 613 commandments. This omission alludes to the one command that is equal to all of the others, one that man must initiate alone, the command to fear G-d. When Moshe exhorted his beloved flock, מה ד' אלקיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה אותי (דברים י יב), What does G-d, your Lord, ask of you? Only to fear G-d..., he was asserting this very principle that ‘all matters are in the hand of Heaven except for the fear of G-d’, which only people can develop from within themselves. (ספר תשבץ אות תסז)
Why though is this message inserted specifically in context to the Ten Expressions that were stated and carved into the Tablets at Mount Sinai?
Not coincidentally, this verse which teaches that ‘fear of G-d’ is the primary command equal to all others and dependent on man alone, is situated directly after the Torah’s third and last reference to these עשרת הדברים, the ‘Ten Statements’.
Moshe previously reviews the tragic events at Mount Sinai where they worshipped the Golden calf that necessitated his breaking the tablets. He goes on to establish the imperative to constantly remember that event. He describes how he had to return for an additional series of forty days and forty nights to retrieve the Tablets anew and ‘inscribed on the Tablets... the Ten Statements that G-d spoke to you on the mountain amidst fire...’
Immediately after this recap he informs them how G-d asks of them only that they fear Him.
What is the Torah seeking to convey here?
The illustrious Rav of Brisk, Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik suggests a remarkable idea regarding these עשרת הדברים, the ‘Ten Statements’, in his masterful work the Beis HaLevi.
He first notes that when Moshe recounts earlier the nature of the first stone Tablets, that he eventually smashed, that he received from G-d inscribed with the finger of G-d, he states: ועליהם ככל הדברים אשר דבר ד' עמכם בהר מתוך האש... (שם ט י), and on them were all the words that G-d spoke with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire...
He quotes from the Jerusalem Talmud that understands this description of ‘all the words that G-d spoke’ as indicating that the Torah in its entirety, both Written and Oral transmissions, were miraculously etched upon the stone. On the second Tablets however the Torah reiterates only the עשרת הדברים, the ‘Ten Statements’ were engraved. Why the discrepancy?
The Beis HaLevi also ponders why is it that Moshe was only bestowed the קרני הוד, Rays of Glory, after having received the second Tablets and not by the first ones. He also cites a reference that states that the first Tablets gave off a light that illuminated the entire world.
He concludes that with the sin of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the Tablets the game plan changed. Were we to have been worthy of the first tablets we would have absorbed the Torah in its entirety from the Tablets alone and we would have never forgotten our learning. We would have attained a level of connection to G-d equivalent to that of Adam prior to his sin. Our relationship to the Torah would be similar to the Ark that beheld the Torah, a utility to holiness.
But after having descended to the sin of the Golden Calf we would no longer have easy access the Torah’s radiance. We would have to generate that energy from within ourselves by overcoming the many challenges we would face, implementing the lessons and values of Torah in all those encounters. The commitment to continuously toil in learning and live lives inspired and guided by Torah, despite the many obstacles and difficulties we would face, whether they be the forces of inner temptation, physical foes, or the vast array of weapons in the hand of the evil inclination, would now replace the previous illumination from the Tablets with an explosion of light from within our very souls.
Moshe’s physical dedication to toil in Torah day and night resulted in an attainment of inner light that radiated off his countenance. In this diminished state subsequent to the sin of the Golden Calf we would realize a level of closeness we couldn’t have possibly achieved before. We would no longer be simply a utility to holiness but the generator of holiness itself. The Beis HaLevi poignantly depicts our relationship to G-d as tantamount to the parchment upon which the holy letters of the Torah are embedded to. The parchment is not merely tangential to holiness, but the very essence of sanctity. (שו"ת וחידושי בית הלוי דרוש יח)
Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon taught that when two people sit together, ויש ביניהם דברי תורה, and there are ‘words’ of Torah between them, the Presence of G-d is with them. When there are no words between them they are deemed a ‘session of scorners’. (אבות ג ב)
He bases this on a verse in the Prophet Malachi where he says: אז נדברו יראי ד' איש אל רעהו ויקשב ד' וישמע ויכתב ספר זכרון לפניו ליראי ד' ולחושבי שמו (מלאכי ג טז), Those who feared G-d spoke to each other, and G-d listened and heard, and in his Presence a record was written of those who fear G-d and think about His name.
What is this ‘book’ of G-d that He keeps track of our deeds? Does G-d forget?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes regarding this verse:
If everything that exists, gets its existence from the ‘word’ of G-d, and everything that occurs, does so at the ‘word’ of G-d, then all these creations and all these occurrences are considered as the contents of a ‘book’ of G-d. The whole world-plan which G-d carries out as world-history can be described as the ‘book’ that G-d had written beforehand, the contents of which He brings to maturity by His direction of the world in the course of time. In this ‘book’ then, all those men would be inscribed, whom G-d uses as tools for carrying out His plan. But in this ‘book’ too, a place is found for every person, who, in the limited sphere of his individual life and with the limited powers at his disposal, lives his life in faithful service of his G-d. In this ‘book’ no honest tear, no honest deed, yea, as Malachi teaches, no true thought is unrecorded.
The Zohar explains that the word for expression, דבר, also means to ‘lead’ as in the verse ידבר עמים (תהלים מז ד), He shall lead nations... This, the Zohar says is the deeper meaning of the directive ודברת בם (דברים ו ז), you shall speak of them. More significant than speaking the words of Torah is the ‘leading’ of our lives by its word and spirit.
When Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon speaks about two people where 'דברי תורה', ‘words of Torah’, are ‘between them’, he avoided the more specific term of עוסק, to toil, or לומד, to learn, because he sought to emphasize the living and breathing of life that is ‘lead’ by Torah even if one never utters a word of Torah. It is about living with the fear of G-d, not a paralyzing ‘fear’, but rather a life lived with a consciousness of the import of our actions and the choices we face in every encounter in life, appreciating the privilege and opportunity we have to invest it with an awareness of His presence, and the ‘writing’ of history our actions bring about.
It is in these moments that we transform our very being into the parchment upon which G-d’s words are penned, thereby illuminating the world with His Presence.
The עשרת הדברים, the Ten Statements are not just utterances but the nucleus from where all of creation stems, that is brought forth by our expressing its message in our every chosen thought, speech and action. No wonder our Sages chose the phrase דברות and its allusion to the missing component; fear and consciousness of G-d that defines and enlightens every facet of existence with its fire.
The Tolna Rebbe recently told over a very touching story he heard from the person himself.
Reb Shlomo somehow survived the Holocaust despite having lost his entire family and having been subjected to the tortures of life in the many concentration camps he experienced.
With great fortune and hope he and several friends found passage on a dilapidated ship that they prayed would succeed in taking them out of this hell to the shores of Haifa and the Promised Land.
How shattered they were when as they approached the final port the British troops turned them away dispatching them to an internment camp on the island of Cyprus.
One can only imagine the despair Shlomo felt after having survived the horrors of the previous years to find himself once again behind barbed wire resting on an excuse for a bed in an internment camp far from any semblance of home.
While he was wading in his misery on a very hot and fly infested afternoon he suddenly hears his friend beckon him to Mincha as they were in need of a tzenter. Despondent and depressed, Shlomo dejectedly responded “Ich halt nisht der by!”, “I’m not holding by davening!”
Although he had held on to his belief and observance it was getting more and more difficult to maintain a positive attitude and rouse himself to participate in Mincha. His friend noting his apathy shouted back that he had yahrtzeit that day for his father and begged Shlomo to enable to him to recite kaddish on behalf of his father. Shlomo wasn’t moved, replying cynically, “What do I have to do with your father?” His friend refusing to allow Shlomo to sink in his depression took a new approach and tactic. “Shlomo”, he called out, “I believe it’s your father’s yahrtzeit today as well”. This information took Shlomo by surprise, and although he wasn’t sure if his friend was playing him or not, he consented on the condition that he serve as the Chazzan!
After completing the job Shlomo approached his friend and accused him of bluffing him. His friend smiled mischievously and admitted his fraud. Shlomo feeling guilty, apologetically asked him why would he forfeit such an opportunity to lead the services on his father’s yahrtzeit just to play a trick on him? His friend answered, “I figured the nachas our Father in Heaven would have from your davening Mincha, would certainly outweigh the value of serving as the leader on my own father’s yahrtzeit.”
This realization awakened within Shlomo an acknowledgment of the preciousness of our choices in G-d’s eyes that stirred within his soul a renewed commitment to carry his legacy forward.
Shlomo went on to establish a beautiful observant family, meriting children and grandchildren, that would carry his family’s legacy, that hanged by a thread on that lonely afternoon in Cyprus, for all of eternity. The rest is history.
When the Children of Israel succumbed to the sin of the Golden Calf the אותיות, the letters on the Tablets, פורחות, separated from the stone and floated up in the air.(פסחים פז:)
Similarly when the great sage Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, who devoted his life to following G-d’s will to its minutest detail, was sentenced to death by the Romans and wrapped in a Torah scroll and placed on a pyre, we are told there too, אותיות פורחות, the letters detached from the parchment and floated up in the air.
Perhaps these ‘letters floating in air’ represent their pining to be bonded to Torah once again through the fulfillment of His will in the myriad of details of our lives that are waiting to become expressions of Torah and part of the history of our people that stems from that ‘book’ we hope to become part of.
The Holy Kohen of Tzefas, the Sifsei Kohen, points out that the term עשרת הדברים are numerically equivalent to עשרים וששה, the Hebrew word for the number 26, the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, י-ה-ו-ה.
When one ‘leads’ one’s life by the ‘word’ of G-d we are guaranteed his Presence accompanies us.
May we never ‘hang by a thread’ and allow our grip to ever release from ‘holding on’. It is precisely at those moments when the opportunity to become part and parcel of the Torah itself, illuminating the world with our choices, that we will sense the warm embrace of our Father in Heaven who longingly awaits our finishing the writing of that marvelous ‘book’ upon our very souls.