If there’s one thing we Jews can agree on, it's that the Ten Commandments are the most important commandments in the Torah, right?
Not so fast.
Sure, murder is really wrong, and honoring your parents is very important and Judaism wouldn’t be a monotheistic religion if idol worship was permitted. But it doesn’t say anywhere in Parashat Yitro, the account of the revelation at Sinai that we read this week, that these mitzvot should be prioritized above all others. Nor is the punishment for coveting your neighbor's wife or stealing as severe as the one for eating chametz on Passover (for which the offender is “cut off” from the Jewish people and from God).
In fact, a famous rabbinic story from the Talmud argues that the single most important commandment in Judaism didn’t even make the list. When a man tells the great sage, Hillel, that he will only convert on the condition that Hillel teach him the entirety of Torah while the man is standing one foot, Hillel replies, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary.” Or as Leviticus 19 puts it, “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
One could point to a good many examples of commandments that should surely outrank some of these ten. Isn’t keeping kosher more central to Jewish life than say, refraining from adultery? It’s essential that every Jew understand their obligation to care for the vulnerable members of society as a condition of our own release from oppression in Egypt. Shouldn’t that go higher on the list than not bearing false witness? And “I am the Lord your God,” isn’t really even a commandment, is it? Though, to be fair, the literal Hebrew translation of asseret hadibrot is the “Ten Utterances,” and a statement is certainly an utterance.
I would argue that Jews have been re-ordering the importance and the relevance of the commandments since Sinai. Different eras, different geographic locations, different societal challenges, have all compelled Jews to rethink their priorities. And that’s certainly appropriate.
The important question is not, I think, which are the most important commandments in the Torah, but which of the commandments in the Torah are most essential at this moment in Jewish history. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we pick and choose which mitzvot we follow and which we ignore, but that we identify those ideas that are crucial for inspiring a revival of Jewish religious commitment and continuity.
I invite everyone to join us, this Shabbat morning around 11 AM, as we consider this question together in an informal conversation during services led by Rabbi Wallach (though I’m sure Rabbi Sunshine and I have will have just a few things to contribute to this conversation, as well).
Hope to see you then.
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