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The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’et’hanan, Moses recounts the revelation at Mount Sinai, during which the Jews were given the Ten Commandments. The Commandments were carved on two stone tablets, five on each. According to tradition, the first five concern obligations between an individual and God, while the latter five govern relations between human beings.
An interesting pattern distinguishes the two types of Commandments. Regarding one’s obligations toward God, the Torah first commands us regarding thought, then speech, and finally behavior.
Thus, the first two commandments are to believe in one God and not to accept any other gods. These duties of the heart and mind are followed by a speech-related mitzvah (commandment), the prohibition against saying God’s name in vain. The last two Commandments on the first tablet require action: observing the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents. (This last commandment actually involves obligations both to God and to other human beings, but it is included on the first tablet and thus traditionally is considered a mitzvah between an individual and God).
The Commandments on the second tablet, which relate to interpersonal relationships, have an inverse order: first action, then speech, and finally thought. Thus, we have the prohibitions against murder, adultery and theft (actually kidnapping, according to the Talmud), followed by that against swearing falsely. The final commandment proscribes coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions in one’s heart.
The Torah seems to be teaching us a fundamental lesson. With respect to our worship of God, the primary emphasis is on our belief and mental processes; what we say and do is secondary. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, however, actions are foremost.
It matters what we say to others and even what we think about them. Yet what the Torah demands is that we behave toward other human beings in the proper manner. If we fail to respect and care about each other, then no amount of words or thoughts can rectify the situation.
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