by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)
The Ten Commandments are the bedrock of Judaism, the cornerstones of our heritage, the foundation of our faith, yet few Jews talk of them as such or of the revelatory scene that took place–if it took place– atop Mt Sinai.
Every year we read the words of the Ten Commandments on Shavuoth, believe in the truth of them, live our lives by them throughout the rest of the year… whether or not the event atop Sinai actually occurred.
In some sense, maybe it doesn’t matter if it occurred because the Ten Commandments in and of themselves are truth. That is, they contain truth, and it’s irrelevant where the commandments came from–from God or from Moses or from some anonymous scribe who wrote them.
On the other hand it seems essential to believe not only in the truth of the Ten Commandments but in the truth of how they came into being, even if we can never know the full story.
We know (or think we know) that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai. And we know (or want to believe) he returned holding the tablets. But what happened between those two events… in the time it took for him to climb up and down the mountain?
Those moments–were they moments or hours or days?– are shrouded in mystery, in the fog of history and time.
Did Moses “see” God? Did he “hear” God’s voice? Or did Moses merely imagine God speaking the words to him?
And did Moses write the words down himself? Or did God hand him the tablets already inscribed?
There’s no transcript, no record of the event that we can turn to in order to learn what happened. All we have are the words of the tablets, and the record of the event as its presented in the Torah.
Does it matter if we know the whole story or just part of it? Does our lack of knowledge–or our limited amount of knowledge– change how we live our lives as Jews?
If the event–the revelation atop Sinai– didn’t happen, if it’s just a figment of someone’s imagination, does that mean the commandments are worthless, not to be taken seriously, not to be followed?
What rules–if any–would we replace the commandments with?
What would become of us–as Jews, as human beings–without them?
Standing in front of the open ark on Shavuoth, I thought about the Torah and the Ten Commandments and wondered if the words had passed from God through Moses to my ancestors to me, or if they might have originated in Moses’ heart, or in the heart of some unknown writer.
No matter where the words may have originated, they possess the ring of truth in the way all great literature contains the ring of truth.
But is that ring of truth enough?
When I left the temple after services, I still had no answers, only more questions.
I’m still learning how to live with faith and doubt simultaneously, and how to balance knowing and not knowing.
Bruce Black, the founder of The Jewish Writing Project, is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Jewish publications such as The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, and in secular publications such as The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. Online Education News ranked his blog on writing, Wordswimmer (http://wordswimmer.blogspot.com) , among the top 100 creative writing blogs of 2009.