A Call to Conscience

We know the exact timing of the giving of the Torah: 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt, and prior to 40 years of wandering. Why was God in such a hurry to deliver the Ten Commandments?

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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The first fruits ceremony at Kibbutz Givat Haim, Shavuot, 1948.
The first fruits ceremony at Kibbutz Givat Haim, Shavuot, 1948.Credit: Otto Gill / Kibbutz Givat Haim
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

On the sixth day of the month of Sivan, in the year of the Exodus from Egypt, yesterday’s slaves stood at the foot of the mountain and received from God the Ten Commandments, 10 formative assertions. The commandments are riveting, both for what they contain and for what they do not contain. They contain the sanctification of the times, of history – “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” – but they do not sanctify places, shrines or personages. They set forth a normative relationship between man and man, between man and his environment, and between man and his creator. They say nothing about man’s relations with government, sovereignty or human authority as such.

In contrast to many biblical narratives, which are deliberately void of reference to age and time – for “there is no earlier or later in the Torah” – the Ten Commandments were affixed to their time and their place: exactly 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt, at the foot of Mount Sinai. Very close to the time of departure and very far from the coveted arrival in the Promised Land. Why?

It is clear to every reasonable reader that the few dramatic weeks that had passed after centuries of enslavement ended were not enough to annul or counterbalance the imprint of subjugation. Manifestly, multiple generations are needed to heal the damage of a national trauma on this scale.

Clearly, less than two months after the surprising and miraculous termination of the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt, it is impossible to expect them to understand, internalize or implement the absolute values of freedom that are expressed in the proclamation of independence to which they committed themselves in the covenant at Sinai. Nevertheless, enormous importance attaches to the early timing for the emplacement of the moral underpinnings that would become the foundation of Jewish civilization across the generations.

The first fruits ceremony at Kibbutz Givat Haim, Shavuot, 1948.Credit: Otto Gill / Kibbutz Givat Haim

At that time, this was a covenant between the nation that received and its God, who dispensed. Subsequently, it became a treaty of basic human existence: restraint of desires, conquest of lusts and the control of force and its exercise. It is forbidden to murder or to steal or to lust after that which is not yours. Not because it is impossible, but because it is not worthy and not moral. And human society is not a society of beasts. Not a capriciously predatorial society but one whose members are restrained in spite of their lusts.

Almost always, talk in present-day Israel about the possibility of reaching an agreed-upon constitution ends with a joint sigh: Too bad. Too bad David Ben-Gurion did not frame a constitution in 1948. What is possible at the moment of creation often becomes impossible in the wake of life’s developments and entanglements. Grasping this, God and Moses laid the constitutional cornerstone at the first possible moment.

Moshav Beit Hanan, girls during first harvest celebrations early 1950.Credit: Beit-hanan archive

The principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments and the way they were given render them highly relevant for modern humankind. They can serve as the starting point for the renewal of the Jewish spirit in our time. They – God, through the agency of Moses – address in the first person the individual who is present at that occasion, and through him each and every one of us.

The call is not to the commonalty, but to the individual and his conscience. Do not murder – you! Honor your father and your mother – yours, your personal parents. I am the Lord your God – between us, individually and intimately, without the corrupting mediation of the establishment and its structures. The Ten Commandments, then, are the creed of the individual, his rights and his freedom.

Shavuot, Petach Tikva, 1940.Credit: Archives of Petach Tikva

In the circumstances of our present-day life, on this festival, it is apparent that the Ten Commandments can act as a moral platform for a new world of relations between individuals. Henceforth, the Exodus from Egypt is not only a heroic and symbolic revolt of slaves, but above all an attempt at a new and different beginning for human civilization.

The totalitarian tyranny of the Egyptian empire left no place for the human being, his freedom and his selfhood. In this sense, the violent empire and the predatory beast are one and the same: inhuman creatures that cannot be sated and cannot control their impulses. This bestial totality is the object of the rebellion by Moses and the Israelites, and to it the Ten Commandments offer an alternative: from subjugated slave to free person.

But not simply a person whose iron shackles have been removed, and has become a savage who is prey to his lusts. On the contrary: The Israelite who signed that Sinai pact undertook to be a free person who restrains his caprices of his own volition – not to murder and not to steal and not to do other things that infringe on the freedom of others. In the face of the Egyptian kingdom, whose hunger knows no bounds and whose brute force knows no limits, we posit a model of human life and existence that is mindful of and sensitive to everything in its surroundings, with individuals who are capable of restraining themselves and not only acting on their bestial impulses.

The values venerated in the Ten Commandments seek to forge a better future and to ensure that yesterday’s slaves will not become tomorrow’s evil masters. This is not only a historical episode about that people and about the Egypt of the past; it is a call for a utopia that must be aspired to in every human reality. For we are citizens of the new alternative empire, the Israeli state power of values, which was born in the desert and has yet to achieve self-realization.

The first fruits ceremony, 1950.Credit: Hashomer Hatzair Archives

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