Last week it was Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea; this week, Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments. Last week’s message was, “We are free!”; this week’s, “We have a purpose!”
That purpose is to build a nation, a civilisation, upon the foundation of the Decalogue. Israel were to carry the tablets of the commandments through history – either as stone tablets or as a symbol placed above the synagogue Ark as a visual reminder and inspiration.
In 13th-century England when it was not popular to be a Jew, the symbol that identified Jews was the two tablets. Not the Magen David nor the Menorah, but the tablets of the commandments. The intention was evil; Christendom wanted a means of humiliating the Jews.
In the unlikely event that Jews would have been consulted, they would have chosen the Menorah as their symbol because of its national historical associations.
But no Jews were consulted, and their enemies made the choice by themselves. And a cruel, uncanny instinct led them to the Ten Commandments, as if they realised that this was what they had to fear. (In theory the Christians too revered the Decalogue, but one should not always look for logic.)
Hence a piece of yellow taffeta, six fingers long and three broad, had to be worn by every Jew over the age of seven. On one level the Jews resented the edict, but perhaps they were also secretly proud, saying to themselves and the world, “That’s what our people stand for!”
What is the message of the Decalogue? Faith. Reverence. Respect. Truth. Order. Ethics. Humanity. Responsibility. Decency. Care with speech, acts and attitudes. No moral ambiguity.
When the Commandments say, “Thou shall not”, it is, as they say in Yiddish, lo mit an aleph, “definitely not”.
Today, people sometimes wear the two tablets as a piece of jewellery around their neck. The two tablets are sometimes also a lapel badge.
But whether it is a visual badge or not, a Jew who thinks of the Ten Commandments should be proud: “That’s what we are – the people of the Ten Commandments!”
Yes, we ought to be proud of them. But we should also ensure the Ten Commandments are proud of us.