Do Not Make Yourself a Pesel, Lest Torah Become an Idol

In the next parshah, Moses will tell the Israelite people: “Thereupon the Eternal One said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.’ After inscribing on the tablets the same text as on the first — the Ten Commandments that the Eternal addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly — the Eternal gave them to me.”

Our parashah contains this second text of the Ten Commandments. One would expect a perfect replica of the first set, an exact repetition, as Moses and God both promise. It is startling and wonderful to see that the texts are not identical. Traditional commentary, encoded in the “L’cha Dodi” of the Friday night service, tells us that both versions of the commandment to observe the Shabbat are uttered in the same instant by God; the single Divine word shatters into countless sparks as when a hammer strikes the anvil.

Biblical criticism, however, teaches that the edited text we have before us is made up of different versions of our sacred narratives. Either way, the Torah pushes back against the notion that there could ever be a singular version of Divine truth. Divine truth is always beyond human grasp; the pure light of the Divine is necessarily refracted by human experience into countless colors.

Were we to imagine that God’s truth could be concretized into any form — two tablets, a Torah scroll, a dogma, or text — that would be idolatry. It would trivialize Divine wisdom and limit God’s infinite Presence to the specific letters we see in front of us. In that spirit of “pushing back against singular truth,” I would like to share a few challenging, sometimes playful, always important insights from the Chasidic anthology “Iturei Torah.” The translations are mine as are any mistakes. These commentaries are drawn from both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Ten Commandments.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein: V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael — “This is the teaching that Moses set before the Israelites” (Deuteronomy 4:44). When we lift the Torah scroll after the Torah reading, it is our custom to recite this verse and to add al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe — “from the mouth of God through the hand of Moses.” This is astonishing, because these two verses were combined from two stories that have nothing to do with each other.

“Sifrei Chasidim”: “I stood before the Eternal and you at that time to convey the Eternal’s words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:5). The “I” of a person, this is the cause of the separation between a person and his Creator. As long as we are thinking about the “I,” it is difficult to get closer to holiness.

Rabbi Aharon of Karlin: “Do not make for yourself an idol (pesel)” (Exodus 20:4). Don’t make yourself into someone who invalidates (posel) the ideas of others. Do not separate yourself from the community.

Rabbi Reuven Katz: “Do not use the name of God for falsehood” (Exodus 20:7). Do not attach God’s name to things that are false and lies. Do not put the stamp of holiness on things that are completely invalid, that may look like mitzvot but are instead serious sins. It is the way of the yetzer (evil impulse) to deceive human beings, to paint a picture of righteousness that really is dreadful sin. And that is why the world was shocked when God stated, “Do not use the name of God for falsehood,” for indeed the most serious crimes and sins and all the horrible and cruel murders are committed with the veil of truth, uprightness and justice.

Rabbi Noah Mindes: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Here tirtzach is written with the vowel patach; in Deuteronomy, it is written with a kamatz. This is to teach that there are two kinds of murder: the physical one and the one about which our Sages spoke: “Whoever whitens (humiliates) the face of another in public is as if [he] spilled his blood” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 58).

“Shem MiShmuel”: “And these words which I command you shall be upon your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Why not in the heart? The Kotzker Rebbe taught: “Sometimes these words lie upon your heart like a stone. And when the heart opens, in a special moment, they will enter it.” Most of the time our hearts are closed and things don’t enter it. But this is no reason to slacken from or forsake the worship of God. Let these things lie upon your heart, on the outside, like a stone. And some day, when your heart opens, these words will enter into it and be inside.

These commentaries play at the edge between reverence and rebellion: They know and treasure each word; at the same time, no single word, no single interpretation can ever capture the whole. Torah should never become a static idol. In the ever-expanding universe of Torah, each glimpse of Divine wisdom gives birth to infinitely more.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y., and author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing and women in Judaism. This column first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

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