Epilogue to the Decalogue1
You yourselves have seen that I spoke with you from Heaven. You shall not make anything to be with Me – [not] gods of silver and gods of gold…An altar of earth you shall make make for Me…If you will make an altar of stones, you shall not build it of cut stones…You should not go up to My altar using steps, so that your ervah not be uncovered.
Like dessert, sometimes the best comes last.
The Aseres ha-Dibros form what probably is the Western world’s most accepted moral code. Klal Yisrael approaches them quite differently than other groups. The difference is the implicit message of a few pesukim that are often overlooked, as they are overshadowed by the thunder of what comes before, and the enormous amount of halachic material contained in the next major section of Mishpatim. This postscript to the Ten Commandments amounts to a powerful set of instructions regarding how we are to implement their message.
It may have seemed quite natural and comfortable for other groups to look for ways to make G-d seem closer and more tangible. Human beings crave the reassurance that G-d is indeed with them; it is difficult for many people to accept and grasp that as humans we are not capable of understanding Who Hashem is. These other groups therefore succumbed to the temptation to make G-d more “real” by having Him share His power, chas ve-shalom, with other constructs. In other cases, they denied the existence of these other powers, but tried to make G-d more acceptable to the common man by placing man-made representations of G-d “beside” the more accurate understanding of Him.
The first message of the epilogue forbids this. As Jews, we don’t need it. We will never forget the encounter at Sinai, when Hashem reached out to us from Heaven, spoke directly with each and every one of us. Any representation of Him strikes us as unnecessary and inaccurate. When we needed to learn of His reality and immediacy, He reached out to us directly, without any intermediaries, without any sharing of power, without any more perceptible representation of Himself.
It is not that we are opposed to using symbols in other areas of Jewish practice. We draw the line, however, when it comes to relating to G-d. In sharp contrast to others, we never use symbols in order to make Him more concrete to us. To the contrary, the symbols we employ speak not of G-d, but of His requirements of us. We will be reassured of His existence not by any representation, but directly by His actions. His blessing will remind us of His Presence in our midst.
We are, in fact, forbidden from making any representation of Him. We are cautioned about the pitfalls in doing so. The Torah here tells us that whatever we use to symbolize G-d will become nothing more than gods of silver and gold. They will convey nothing of His reality, and everything of our imperfect and fallacious understanding of Him. He does at times instruct us to use certain figures like the cheruvim. We will scrupulously obey, and use them in the exact manner and form that He dictates, but nothing more. We can note that the figures He commands us to make represent human traits, not Divine ones. They express truths about ourselves, or how as humans we relate to Hashem. When our own fancy and conjecture prod us to make similar figures on our own, we try to represent G-dly traits, not human ones. We will always get it wrong. Such symbols, therefore, will always be nothing less than idols.
Others will fall prey to actual idolatry, or a less than perfect monotheism. They will find room in their worship for the powers they see as “with” G-d, and attribute divinity to celestial bodies like the sun and the moon. The Torah banishes this thought by specifying its opposite. We are to serve Hashem with an altar made of earth, reminding us where we should focus our spiritual quest. Rather than peer into the Heavens to learn their secrets, the Torah declares that the earth and only the earth is our bailiwick. An altar made of earth succinctly describes our mission. We are to take all things made of earth, all things that belong to our sphere of influence, and elevate them (just as the altar elevates all that is put atop it) towards G-d.
The second message concerns violence. The altar of earth gives way to a time when “you will make an altar of stones.” The wanderings will come to an end, and the Bnei Yisrael will establish a nation firmly in the Land promised to them. The altar will become a permanent one, made of stones. That altar will become the focal point of Jewish dedication to Hashem. Each and every stone will need be a symbol of holiness and commitment. No stone may be cut with a steel implement, whose ordinary function is to cut short the life of man. Neither the sword nor anything connected with it may play a role in the erecting of an altar whose function is to bring peace between Man and his Creator. The sword represents power and violence, but never peace, justice and humaneness. Playing any role at all in the construction of the altar means diluting the message that right – not might – can and must be the foundation of our peoplehood.
The third message tells us about the priest who serves at that altar. The human intercessor between Man and G-d cannot hope to teach his fellow man about right and humaneness if his own character is deficient. There is no room for gilui ervah in climbing towards the spiritual elevation symbolized by the roof of the altar. We substitute a ramp for the steps we might have built in front of the mizbe’ach, so that not even the unseeing ground should be exposed to any nakedness. Just as the nature of the altar should not be contaminated by any admixture of violence, so to the character of the kohein cannot be compromised by any remote connection to ervah, which would mar his purity.
That the sum of the messages is three is no coincidence. We cannot fail to notice that the three messages form a familiar set. They speak to the three cardinal sins of Judaism: idolatry, murder, and illicit relations. These three transgressions are so damaging to our selves, that we must yield our lives rather than submit to them. They describe the worst in our relationship with G-d, our fellow man, and our selves. Linking them to the Aseres ha-Dibros that precedes them informs us that ultimately, the purpose of all Divine law is to banish from our midst the last traces of the great moral failings.
Yet, if these three speak of the three cardinal sins, they do so only through the power of association. Actual idolatry, murder and forbidden unions are not mentioned here at all. Creating a symbol with which to serve the True G-d is hardly a form of worshiping a different deity. Using metal implements does not take anyone’s life; taking wider strides on the way up to the altar is not licentious behavior. This, in the end, is exactly the point. To rid human society of great moral crimes, it does not suffice to speak about them, to sermonize against them, to paint them in the darkest of shades. Embracing the ethic of the Ten Commandments might be a good beginning, but it will not create a better society, or even better people. If we are serious about it, we must distance ourselves even from what is remotely and peripherally connected with moral turpitude.
To make progress on ridding ourselves of even the greatest moral failings, we need to distance ourselves from them and everything associated with them. If we recognize that our image of G-d places an upper limit on what moral plane we aspire to, it is not sufficient merely to warn against the worship of false gods. We must guarantee that we do not distort the image of the real G-d in our minds by improperly representing Him, by allowing our own conceptions to be imposed upon Him.
To banish murder, it is not enough to preach about the sanctity of human life. For our quest to succeed, murder must become not just an intellectually perceived moral failing. We must train ourselves to find murder repugnant, to not only think it wrong, but to feel it wrong. We should reject it so completely that we cannot bear to think of anything that leads to it. We must be sickened by weapons of destruction, not fascinated by them. We cannot teach our children that murder is evil, but allow them to trivialize murder, to desensitize themselves to the value of human life by surrounding them with images of murder in their entertainment.
We cannot hope to win people away from immoral sexual behavior simply by trying to set limits and boundaries. When people get close to those borders, many will simply fall over the edge, especially if they live in a society in which the very air is poisoned by enticement and temptation. To succeed, we need to promote the positive virtues of modesty and decency.
The three messages effectively merge into one. No society will live by the Ten Commandments just by extolling their wisdom. They will work only for people willing to set up fences around the law, to distance themselves from transgression, to take proactive steps to avoid evil, to address the heart as well as the mind, to teach virtue rather than just fear of the law.
For the Ten Commandments to succeed, we need the guidance of an entire Torah. All the rest is commentary.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 20:19-23