As we begin the High Holy Day season, we are reminded of all the commandments in Judaism that we are expected to follow. We are told that if we do, we get rewarded. If we don’t, we get punished; maybe not now, but eventually. But how familiar are you with the Top Ten? (look above our ark) Actually, the Torah does not call them the Ten Commandments.

Translating the Hebrew that introduces these laws:
God spoke all these words, saying:
The Hebrew word D’varim means words, or things – so these are really called the Ten things that God told us.

Which of the commandments do you know?


1. Belief in God: I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. Don’t Worship the way they do: You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image. You shall not bow down to them or serve them

3. Don’t Make inappropriate oaths – You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God

4. We have Sacred Times: Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days God made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.


Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

5. Respect for Parents: Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God is assigning to you.

6. Respect for Life: You shall not murder.

7. Respect Your Spouse: You shall not commit adultery.

Respect Your Neighbor:

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. Control Your Impulses You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Imagine what it must have been like. You have just been freed from slavery. Fearful, you followed Moses into the Red Sea and miraculously made it to the other side. Moses brings you to this special location and tells you that something unique and awesome is about to happen. Close your eyes picture yourself back there, at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Let me remind you of what happened there.

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; and the whole mountain trembled violently.
(Hear the rumbling sound)
The blare of the horn grew louder and louder.
(Hear the shofar sound)
As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.
(Hear the thunder)
Adonai called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.
And what was the people’s response?

When Moses repeated to the people all the commands of God, all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” 2

This is the first time that God addresses the Israelites as a people. Why are these the first things God asks us to do? They fall into two categories – the first five are about God. These give you a sense of what the God of the Israelites is like and the relationship that God wants with the people. God is saying, “Let’s create a partnership. I will do this for you but there are things I want you to do for Me, and here they are.”

The second half is about how we related to other people, which is an indirect, but more easily understood way to connect with God. If people are created in God’s image, then how we treat people should reflect how we understand God.

So here we are, 3500 years later inheriting the covenant that our ancestors made with God on that day. Do we, in the 21st century, have an obligation to continue what our ancestors promised so long ago? Are these words outdated, old, ancient? Are they meant only to be taken literally? What can be the underlying message that we, today,can glean from these ancient words? Let’s take one commandment at a time and see what we can learn from each one.

The First Commandment
1. Ex. 20:2-3– I, The Eternal, am your God

It’s not really a commandment. It’s a statement. translating the Hebrew it says:

Your God – Elohecha is in the singular. This phrase tells us that this is a personal God. “I am the one who is and always will be your God. The message for us is, “I cared about each individual back then and I care about each person now.”

The second part says:

I brought you out of Mitzrayim – Which is usually translated as Egypt but also means – the narrow place. Mitzrayim contains the word: Tzur – tzuris – troubles.“I am the One who can bring you out of out of the narrow way of seeing things, our of your enslavement and your tzuris, your worries. I did it back then. I can still do it for you now. Do you believe that God can still do these things?

Part of that is up to you. While the Israelites heard God’s voice in a roaring thunder, Elijah heard God in a still small voice. If you listen carefully, can you hear that voice talking to you? There is a physical part of our brain – described by Dr. Dean Hamer as the God Gene – that lights up when we pray or meditate. God created us with a God sensor. If we ignore that part of our brain, and rely only on scientific and academic knowledge, we are only using part of the brain God gave us.

Commercial break:
For those of you who have trouble connecting to a personal God, I have just finished Part II of the books that I wrote called,“A Spiritual Travel Guide to the World of God.” Part One – “Packing for the journey, “talks about finding ways to create a personal relationship with God. Part II is called, “God Questions on the Journey.” Both books are available to buy at the Temple office. I donated the books so all profits go to the Temple.

The Second Commandment
2. Ex. 20:4-6 You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.

Is this one really relevant to us? Do any of you have an idol in your home? Maybe not a statue of a god, but perhaps you bow down to a different kind of idol. “Idolatry can be defined as the moments when we forget who we really are, that our souls are sparks of the Divine, and we give up our power to some thing:an ideology, a romantic obsession, a stressful job, unhealthy habits. These may bring temporary fleeting “happiness.”3 But they are usually look quick fixes. – our Golden Calf. We may half-heartedly say, “God help me,” and if it doesn’t change in an instant, we say God doesn’t exist and go looking elsewhere for our quick fix idols. Take a moment to reflect – What are the idols in your life? What are the things you bow down to?What are those things that stop you from seeing the truth about your life?

The Third Commandment
3. Ex. 20:7 You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God. Also translated as “Don’t take God’s name in vain.”

This really isn’t about saying, “God Damn It?” It is much more profound. What is the message of this commandment? First, it is a reminder not to make promises you won’t be able to keep, especially promises in which you say,“I swear to God I will do it, and then you don’t.”

People who promise more than they can deliver are usually insecure and afraid of being found inadequate, incompetent or unlovable. Think of the times you’ve made promises you knew you couldn’t keep. Take some time during these Ten Days of Awe to do some self-evaluation to see why you made such promises.

Second, this commandment reminds us that when we swear, it is often out of anger. This commandment reminds us to learn how to control our anger and self-righteousness. Someone may have a different opinion than you do, or a different way of doing things than you do. Instead of getting angry and cursing at them, can you realize that you both may be right?

Just as Bilaam did when he was sent to curse the Israelites, And instead said, “Mah Tovu O’halecha Yaakov – How wonderful are your Tents, O Jacob.” Can you find a way to turn your cursing into blessings?

The Fourth Commandment
Ex. 20:8 -11 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

Shabbat challenges us to distance ourselves from our everyday pressures and connect with something profound and joyful, at least once in a while, at least once a week. The word Sabbath means more that just resting. It means “to cease.” The important message in this commandment is: Take time to cease from an activity in progress, to say, “I am pleased with the work I have done so far.” Doing so helps to put everything in perspective. It helps you realize that the process is just as important, if not more important, than the end result.

As a rabbi, I encourage you to make Shabbat a special day – do something different than you do the rest of the week. Spend time with family, a hobby, read a book, play or listen to music. Maybe even come to Shul.
There are two versions of this commandment in the Torah. The first tells us to “shamor” – Keep the Sabbath, and the second is “Zachor” – Remember the Sabbath. Keep Shabbat by doing some of the rituals.

When you do so, it connects you to Jews all over the world, and back in history who do, or have done, the same rituals. If you don’t want to do that, at least remember that is Shabbat by doing something unique, enjoyable, and different from the rest of the week.It may not seem like it is worth doing, but believe me, going into the new week this way will give you a more positive approach to the week.

The Fifth Commandment
Ex. 20:12 Honor your father and your mother.

That is easy if you have good parents. What if you have had signifcant disagreements or painful interactions with them? Perhaps you have a parent that you can never please. You feel like you can never do anything right in their eyes. Or you have a parent with Alzheimer’s – whose only interaction with them is very superficial or who complains that you never visit them yet you saw them last week. The Hebrew word used here for honor is Kabeid. It is related to the word, Kaved – which means “heavy.” Honoring your parents can be a heavy obligation.

Whether the process of honoring your parents is an irritating burden or a heartfelt opportunity depends on how you approach it: Even if you resentments are justified, you can still choose to forgive these hurts in order to allow yourself to be open to the possibility of better feelings towards your parents. We want our parents to be perfect, but they too, are only human. See if you can picture your mom or dad as a child. What were the things they went through that may have made them act the way they do towards you. (For example – Abusers have often been abused themselves.) If it helps, write a letter but don’t send it. Get all the pent up feelings and hurt you have out on paper. It can be cathartic and healing, even without sending the letter.

Contact me after the holidays if you want to talk more about this issue personally.

The Sixth Commandment
6. You shall not murder.
Hopefully no one here has an issue with this one. So what else can it mean for us? If we haven’t murdered someone, do we kill in other ways? We still have an obligation to prevent a murder, a suicide or a death, if at all possible.

The Talmud tells us, “If you save one life it is as if you have saved the entire world.” Do you make sure everyone in the car is wearing a seat belt? Do you drive safely, without drinking or texting? Do you give tzedakah to food banks, and other organizations, that work to prevent death from starvation and disease?
Does this commandment only refer to physical death? What about crushing a person’s spirit? Have you said hurtful things to someone, ignored them, didn’t appreciate something they went out of their way to do for you, humiliated them.

This too is a type of murder. Whose spirit have you murdered without really committing murder?

The Seventh Commandment
7. You shall not commit adultery.

I don’t need to go into the details of what happens when someone breaches the promise and trust of marriage. Could there also more to this commandment? Perhaps this is more than about breaking a covenant you made with your spouse on your wedding day.

What if this commandment is not only about sex outside of marriage, but of how you approach sex within marriage. In Judaism, sex is considered holy within a committed relationship. So much so that Nachmonides wrote a book called Iggeret Hakodesh – The Holiness of Marital Relations, that goes into great detail about how a man should treat his wife with tenderness and understanding.

To put this commandment in the positive, have an affair with your spouse! Put your heart and soul into your relationship and treat your partner with as much attention, respect, and excitement as you would treat someone in a new relationship. If you are interested in reading Nahmonides advice on sexual relationships in marriage, you can find it on – search for, “The Holy Letter.”

The Eighth Commandment
8. You shall not steal.
Is this more than just taking someone else’s physical property? The Hebrew word, tignov, is related to the word integrity. There are many ways that we steal from people without taking their physical possessions. Rabbi Ishmael says “The worst kind of thief is someone who uses deception to steal the good opinion of people.” Are you one who likes to gossip or listen to gossip? If so, then you are, in effect, stealing their reputation from them.
Leviticus 19:16 tells us. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. The simple reading of this is you should help your neighbor when he is in trouble. The Rabbis tells us that this also refers to slander. When you embarrass someone, and their face blushes with embarrassment, the redness of the face is just as bad as the red color of blood.

Are you giving enough for Tezedakh? Not sharing a portion of what you have with those who have less, is in effect, stealing from them. This commandment reminds us that we have a spiritual obligation to help others, and see that their needs are met.

The Ninth Commandment
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Again, this is not just about lying on the witness stand. It also relates to gossip. Gossip is a like a tree-pronged tongue which injures the spirit of three people: the person about whom the gossip is said, the person who listens to it, and the person who says it. All three are equally affected adversely. Don’t gossip! Tell others who want to gossip to you that you are not interested, and walk away.

If you are about to say something personal about someone and it might be hurtful stop and ask yourself, What is my intention here to do good or to do harm?” Recognize that the issue is not whether the gossip is true or false, but will the words you say produce harm or good.

The Tenth Commandment
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

This refers not only to our desire for what we don’t have, but also our lack of appreciation and gratitude for what we do. Are you able, when you see something you want, and know you can’t have it, find appreciation in all that you DO have? This commandment can also be there to teach us to be patient. You may want something desperately. The challenge is to decide if you really need it, or just want it because someone else has it. If it is a meaningful desire, then you need to take the proper steps, which may take time, so you can eventually get what you truly want.

In the meantime focus on what you already have. Each day, take a few moments, either when you wake up, our just before you go to sleep, to name at least one good thing that you have, or one good thing that happened to you.

Ten simple utterances, yet not so simple. Ten Commandments, Ten Things that God told our ancestors. Ten things that were passed onto us, so we to can say, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!”
By doing so, we are not only following orders, but adding meaning and holiness to our lives.

*Based on the book The Ten Challenges by Leonard Felder, PhD