The Ten Commandments
by Maureen Kendler
A piece be broadcast for Pause for Thought on Radio 2 to mark the festival of Shavuot by Maureen Kendler. Maureen is Head of Jewish Education at the London School of Jewish Studies.
Jews celebrate the festival of Shavuot, which marks the giving of The Ten Commandments. There's something so strong and reassuring about the phrase; The Ten Commandments- they were after all set in stone for eternity! And I think they still form an inspiring basis for a just society. A world where idols aren't worshipped, with one day a week to be celebrated as a Sabbath, a day of rest. A society where parents are honoured, human life is respected and the truth is told.
There are many mediaeval teachings called Midrashim about the Children of Israel receiving the Ten Commandments which have always intrigued me. They ask why the 10 commandments were given to the Jewish nation, as opposed to any other people. And the answers offered by to of them seem to directly contradict each other.
One story says that the Children of Israel all stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the ten commandments without even asking first what was in them, they were so willing and happy to have been offered this bond with God. The other story recounts how God offered them the 10 commandments.... while holding mount Sinai over their heads. The people said - unsurprisingly- yes please, we'll take them!
Human nature being what it is, I have always gone for the second story - after all, we don't know always know what is good for us, and doing the right thing and keeping laws does not always seem very appealing. We might well need a bit of persuasion to lead an upright, unselfish life. It seems like forcing someone to take medicine they really don't want to take..... The Ten Commandments cover basic human rights and also the intentions behind them- so there is a one about not being jealous as well as not murdering. It may be that our instincts to build a better society and lead a good life don't come so naturally, and a mountain needed to be held over our heads to make us literally - come to our senses, and sign up for keeping the rules. Harsh, maybe....
But....they are the Ten Commandments and not the Ten Suggestions.