Hardly a day goes by that we don't see, hear, or read about the Ten Commandments. Actually, we have grown so accustomed to their being tossed about on the Internet, on television, in the newspaper, or in our places of worship that when we speak of them they no longer speak to us. It is only when we examine the tenth commandment that we realize their implications for us personally: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house: you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor male nor female slave, nor ox nor ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's"(Exodus (20:14). The Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 may be timeless, but time has shown us that while we can control our actions, our thoughts and desires are not in the moral domain.
(Stop! Don't think of a black cat!)
And indeed, the original Hebrew for these basic principles of human interaction—with God and with other people—is Aseret HaDibrot, "the Ten Words," which is what they really are. We will see that Exodus 20, rather than a list of dos and don'ts, a collection of rules, or even an ethical yardstick, is instead a road map showing what will happen if we live lives of deepening intimacy with God. Following this map can help shape our dreams and transform our desires.
If the last of the Ten Words, about coveting, cannot be a commandment, neither can the first: "I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). If we accept that God created heaven and earth, we may wonder why that mightiest of deeds is avoided for establishing God's identity, in favor of a specific role in a drama that took place at one time to one group of people.
"I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt" is addressed to those people who had experienced God in the Exodus. Of course, none of the Israelites gathered now at Sinai were present at the Creation, so it would have been hard for them to identify God's self as participating in an event they could only imagine. But they were present at the Exodus from Egypt, personally experienced God's role, and therefore could recognize God as speaking to them personally.
We can sense God only as filtered through our own experience. God may have liberated our ancestors from bondage, but God continues to liberate each one of us from the shock of loss, from the enslavement of addiction, from the narrow place of meaninglessness. So the first step on our road map is experiential knowledge of God. From this place (uniquely and personally defined by each of us), we understand the next of the Ten Words: we cannot possibly have any other gods besides God.
The third word follows logically: we will not confuse anything we sculpt or paint, photograph or engrave, with the God we have intimately met in our own experience of liberation (Exodus 20:4-5). As simply and naturally, it follows that we cannot attribute to God anything that is not in fact true. Knowing God from within our own experience precludes our using God's name to support a cause or a political action.
The fourth word, "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy"(Exodus 20:8), comes at a time when we have, in fact, experienced profound rest. The more we come to know God (as opposed to knowing about God), the more we come to recognize how much the world does not depend on us. We may labor six days, but on the seventh we can release because ultimately the world will go on with or without us.
The fifth word is "Honor your father and your mother"(Exodus 20:12). As we deepen our knowledge of God, we recognize that behind the imperfect love of our parents lies the perfect love of God. In honoring our parents, the immediate cause of our being alive, we also honor God, the ultimate source.
In honoring the gift of life and the cause of all life, we find that we cannot commit murder, nor can we countenance taking a life, whether by an individual or a society.
Like everything else, the love of God is filtered through our own experience. The deep value of faithfulness to that love is revealed through our own committed love in this world. As the love of God grows within us, we find that any act of disloyalty, and especially adultery, has dropped from our vocabulary.
"You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:13). Stealing comes from fear that there will not be enough for us. Successfully experiencing Shabbat, the weekly period when we are not controlling the world, has mitigated this fear. As a result, we ourselves find, like the Israelites finding the manna in the desert, that there will be enough to sustain us and our family. Without a need, envy of what someone else has is diminished. And our sense that our needs are met through love has made stealing unnecessary.
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:13). Our whole world has become a world of Emet, Truth—one of God's most beautiful names. When we realize that our words are there to heal and bless, we cannot speak falsely about another.
And so, the very shape of our consciousness and being has been transformed: "You shall not covet,"and we really don't covet. We return to our starting point with an awareness that a life lived in deepening intimacy with God will transform our way of thinking about the world and our way of being in the world. The Ten Words are now ten landmarks on our journey, and we find them marking a way of life that is a blessing.
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.