William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Live on the summit to avoid the abyss

The Ten Commandments are revealed in this week’s portion of Torah.  Commands not to lie or murder or be unfaithful are etched in stone for all time. Curiously, God speaks the first two commands in the first person (‘I am God your Lord’, ‘Have no other gods before Me’).  The remaining eight are in the third person (“Don’t take the name of God in vain’).  Commentators attribute this shift to the deafening danger experienced by the millions present at Mt. Sinai that day.  The people plead with Moses to ask God to begin speaking indirectly “Let God not speak directly with us any more, for if God does we will die” (Ex. 20:16).

Interestingly, the last words spoken by God in the first person – the end of the second commandment demanding exclusive worship of God, undeviated by idols – touch upon hatred and love.   “Where those who hate Me are concerned, I keep in mind the sin of parents for their descendants, to the third and fourth generation.  But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands of generations” (Ex. 20:5,6).  Actions hold residual consequences. 

Why does God elect to express emotional extremities like hate and love here?  Sinai is not about approximates or ambiguities.  It is not about accommodating middles of the road.  Even more than teaching the grammar of goodness, Sinai burns its lessons into our beings.

An unmoored emotional existence, like an unmoored moral life, ends wrecked at sea.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught “Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss.”  What does the abyss look like?  When the hated answers questions about hatred by frothing “I hate this question.”

Many resist hate.  Others insist on love.  Some enlist both drives by striving to inhabit values upon the summit.  One way to do so is by heeding another of the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Ex. 20:8).  Yehuda Mirsky’s masterful biography of the life of the founder of religions Zionism, Rav Kook, offers a morally handsome example of making the Sabbath holy.  “When a physician refused to travel to a patient on the Sabbath, out of fear of reprisals from the more stringent Orthodox, Rav Kook walked alongside the man’s carriage the whole way.”

The Sabbath is our summit. May its influence inspire us throughout each week to walk alongside our neighbor to help warm our faith in one another.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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