Broken Tablet

The negotiations between Moses and God were not easy. That is the only explanation for the long stay on the mountain, 40 days and 40 nights, before the Torah was given. According to stubborn rumors that found their way through the concealing cloud, God insisted on more than Ten Commandments, and Moses begged him not to go too far: Even those 10 would be a tough burden to meet.

This particular Shavuot, holiday of the first fruits of our sins, is a good time to revisit the Ten Commandments, which are a kind of super-constitution from which all other duties are derived. Most of them are not practical duties, but moral ones: Morality is the wheat, and ritual is the chaff. Although Yeshayahu Leibowitz held that ethics were not Judaism's raison d'etre, and that the term "Jewish morality" was meaningless (he considered it to be atheistic), most Jews would reject his eccentric position, and only ultra-Orthodox Jews embrace it.

Some Godless politicians may also latch onto Leibowitz's thought and find it a treasure. After all, they clasp their hands in dismay and cry out, weeping, every time a breach appears in the fence around the Torah - chametz (leavened bread) sold on Pesach, or pork sold all through the year - and the public domain is defiled. The Jewish state has reached its end, they lament. What remains of its Jewish character, and how is an Israeli superior to the beasts of foreign fields? All of a sudden they cling to the old Israel, who giveth out candy in wallets and feedeth among the bribes.

The land has filled with theft, the Tablets of the Decalogue are thrown down and broken, but the ritual commandments have endured: It is much easier to kiss a mezuzah than to avoid taking the Lord's name in vain; easier to put on tefillin or join a minyan for prayer than to avoid stealing money or deceiving; easier not to mix meat and dairy than not to covet; easier to keep public transportation from operating on the Sabbath than to avoid bearing false witness against your brother; easier to adhere to the strictest of standards in conversion and to bury those whose Judaism is in doubt outside the cemetery than to honor your founding father and your pioneering mother.

Quite a few politicians stick to the ritual commandments while disparaging the Ten Commandments - to hell with morality, long live ritual. Their guilt is branded on their brow, but their yarmulkes, worn at all times as another offhand ritual, are not even scorched.

Shavuot is also when we mark the birth and death of David. This is the king who coveted another man's wife, committed adultery with her, and sent her husband away to die in a brutal, unnecessary war; this is the king whom the prophet chastised sharply, even though David danced with all his might before the Ark of God. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's wife, despised him for revealing himself as one of the empty fools; I, too, feel contempt for those who prance before empty arks.

Celebrate the feast of weeks, Shavuot - and what a lovely holiday it is. Those with large appetites, who eat and drink as if there were no tomorrow, prefer dairy dishes, and even those whose garments are stained can walk around all in white.