Interpersonal Injunctions

Presented at the OU Israel Center, January 30th 2018

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Imagine a convention of the greatest Torah luminaries. The keynote speaker, THE Gadol Hador, rises and delivers his address: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal...” Is not this something every one of those scholars already knows and instinctively obeys without a second thought? Would they not consider this address insulting? Yet this is the metaphor Rabbi Svei z”l presents in Ruach Eliyahu as the scene for Ma’amad Har Sinai. We have the gathering of the most illustrious generation of all time gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Hashem reveals Himself to them and commands them with Ten Utterances that appear to be self evident. But appearances are not always what they seem, and here too, we must expect that much depth and wisdom lies beneath the surface of these seemingly self evident commandments.

            The best known interpretation comes from Rav Saadia Gaon who postulates that each of these Ten Commandments contains within it multiple other laws, that each of these is the heading of a full category of related commandments that constitute the full 613 commandments of the Torah. We will explore this idea through the eyes of other commentators later in this shiur.

            It is important to acknowledge at the very outset that the entire Torah is meant to increase yirat shamayim/fear of Heaven. The Malbim explains that although these latter five Dibrot all appear logical, unless their observance in based on a fear of Heaven and an acknowledgment of Hashem’s sovereignty, our human logic could easily be distorted and corrupted by our human passions. How many nations, let alone individuals, people of culture and intellect, have been led astray by their passions and have transgressed these laws, perhaps at first secretly, but eventually even blatantly, with laws to support their behavior. This was the fear of our patriarch Avraham when he traveled to Geror, a fear that made him say that Sarai was his sister rather than his wife. If the people did not fear Heaven, all their “culture” would vanish upon seeing this beautiful woman and they would kill Avraham to obtain her.

            And while we can all agree that these social laws are logical, writes Rabbi Mordechai Druck, z”l tomorrow we may disagree and want to change a particular requirement. The only way to ensure the observance of all the commandments is to agree they all come from the mouth of God, whether we understand them or not, and we observe them because they come from God and not because we agree with them.

             The Malbim goes on to explain that each group of five Commandments, the first five “religious” laws and the latter five “social” laws, contain within them laws that encompass thought, action, or speech, thereby incorporating all aspects of human behavior. In the first five, we are commanded about belief in one God and no other, abstaining from making a statue, and honoring parents by serving them, and speaking by reciting Kiddush, and remembering each day in reference to Shabbos. The latter five warn us first not to harm another through actions like murder and thievery. This is followed by speech, bearing false witness, and finally controlling thought, coveting. These laws constitute the ethical minimum for peaceful social interaction, adds Rabbi Munk z”l.

            Rav Hirsch z”l echos these thoughts and then goes further with the “social” laws. If you have integrated the first five laws and made God the sole Guide of your life and actions, you also understand that every other human being is also under His direct care. Therefore all he is and all he has is sanctified by God, and you are enjoined from harming him or anything that belongs to him in any way. In fact, notes Vayovinu Bamikra, this idea is reinforced by the very last words of the Commandments, “Nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” This reflects our belief that Hashem has given us everything. In this vein, this commandments parallels the first commandment of believing in God. One who understands and believes that he and all others are under Hashem’s providence will not seek to harm another.

            Our tradition tells us that the two tablets had equal writing on them. But simple observation tells us that the first five commandments have many more words that the latter five. How then can the writing on the two tablets be equal? Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon explains that for the two tablets to have equal writing, it was necessary for the lettering on the second tablets to be much larger than on the first. This, notes Rabbi Salomon, is to bring greater attention to these commandments and accord them as much care and trepidation as we do to the laws we consider more religious laws. And Hashem has instilled in us the ability to observe each of these laws no matter how difficult it would appear.

            This raises an interesting question. Could not Hashem have created Man without a yetzer horo, without a desire to steal or murder? However, writes Rav Elyah Lopian z”l in Lev Eliyahu, Hashem first wrote the Torah and then used it as a blueprint to create the world and Man within it. The Torah already contained the commandments not to murder, not to kill, and so many others. Hashem wanted mankind to be able to earn reward for observing these commands. Had He created Man without a yetzer horo, Man would not have had the ability to earn any reward. The only thing that would keep Man from following these negative urges is fear of God. Hashem wanted us to develop this trait within ourselves, and so He gave us the yetzer horo to help us develop the yirat Hashem muscles. We have the ability to soar to great heights, notes the Saba of Kelm z”l, but we have the equal ability to sink just as low.

            Now we are ready to discussing some of the many facets of the commandments. Both Rabbi Zaidel Epstein z”l and Rabbi Munk z”l, among others, discuss the various actions and behaviors that are alluded to and become part of the prohibition of each of the commandments. For example, any behavior which diverts the flow of blood from its normal course within the body, most notably embarrassing someone, is a form of murder, although not as severely punished as actual murder. Similarly, anything which may inadvertently cause someone’s death, such as slander or bad advice, falls within this rubric. Within this context, King Saul was accused of killing the Gibeonites even though he did not actually murder them. The Gibeonites were wood choppers and water carriers for the Temple priests, and when Saul had the priestly city of Nov destroyed, (for allegedly giving succor to David) the Gibeonites lost their means of sustenance and died.

            Perhaps the best known example of killing others with behavior rather than with weapons is the death of Rabbi Akivah’s 12,000 pairs of disciples. Why did they all die so suddenly? The Talmud tells us that it was that “they did not accord honor one to the other.” If such great men could fall into the trap of withholding honor from each other, how much more do we need to be careful in our treatment of each other.

             If we now move on to “Thou shalt not steal,” we will find so many additional layers of meaning meant to preserve the special nature of every human being. Rabbi Sher z”l and Rabbi Svei z”l add to the discussion of Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Munk. Perhaps the best known stealing other than money is kidnapping, stealing someone’s freedom. Also, one of the deepest insights here is that any behavior which lessens the dignity of another constitutes a form of stealing. For example, not returning someone’s greeting, or texting while your neighbor (or your child) is trying to talk to you falls under this category. Each deserves our attention. Further, if you have the ability to comfort another or to give encouragement and you fail to do so, you’re killing his ability for greatness and also robbing him of dignity. Embarrassing someone even in private is akin to murder and may be even more dangerous, for we may not even be aware of what we are doing. [Think sarcastic remarks at someone’s expense, just to be funny. CKS]

            Further, if you use insincere flattery just to impress someone, or you otherwise leave someone with a false impression of your actions that were not necessarily done for their benefit, you are tricking their mind, called literally geneivat da’at/stealing their mind (knowledge). If you’re careless with someone else’s property, you can easily end up stealing at least petty things. And you can steal someone’s space, or, as Rabbi Rivlin z”lpoints out, you can steal someone’s air by standing in the doorway and blocking the flow [or standing directly in front of an air conditioner to cool off while others are also sweating].

            Following the revelation and Hashem’s imparting the Ten Commandments, the Parsha concludes with a seemingly unrelated idea. Hashem tells Bnei Yisroel about building an altar. Included in the instructions are two prohibitions. You may not use any metal to hew the stones, for your sword shall desecrate it, and you shall not ascend the altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it. With these injunctions, writes Rabbi Sher, z”l Hashem is telling us that any hint of indignity or of immodesty, even if seemingly unconnected, must be avoided. To drive this point home, Hashem wanted to proclaim it from Sinai, loud and clear.

            Rabbi Svei z”l gives a further, somewhat homiletic interpretation here. Do not be cold as metal when you hear of someone’s tragedy or bitter circumstances, whether of a friend or in Eretz Yisroel. React, and do not remain apathetic. When Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol was being led to his death as one of the Ten Martyrs, he asked Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel what he may have done to deserve such a fate. In response, Rabbi Shimon asked him if he had ever made a widow wait for a response [to a shailah] while he finished what he was doing. Rabbi Gamliel’s response resonated with Rabbi Shimon, and he was comforted. He understood that asking a widow to wait may have diminished herself in her own eyes, making her think herself less worthy, and taking away some of her humanity, ever so slightly killing her soul.

            Rabbi Sher z”l notes an interesting connection to a common custom. It is customary to remove knives from the table before reciting Birkat Hamazon/Grace After Meals, for the table is likened to our altar, and we do not put objects that can cut and stab on the altar.   The lesson we derive from this, is that we should remain sensitive to the cutting power of words, and the appropriate sensitivity we need to afford others.

            Now we can also elaborate on the commandment against adultery to include all immodest behavior. Certainly the priests wore pants as they ascended the altar. Yet Hashem was concerned about the hint of immodesty by walking up steps. We can further expand on this idea by including immodest clothing, immodest speech with or without profanity, and even slightly sexually suggestive magazines or internet material. Hashem wanted to be very clear that the Ten Commandments are meant to impact every aspect of our lives, both in our relationship with Him and in our relationship to others.

            The goal of Torah is to get us to live a life of yirat Shamayim. When I understand that Hashem appeared to me and to everyone else at Sinai, that all mankind was created in His image, I will become more sensitive to others. It is not changeable, human logic but Hashem sensitizing us that creates peace within ourselves, with each other, and within the world.