Understanding Our Own Mortality

How the Ten Commandments finds meaning in the face of death.

Print this page Print this page

Looking to Future Generations

As the Israelites listen to Moses repeat the Decalogue, their biological parents are gone and their parent figure, Moses, will soon die. How can they find the invincible parent? Somehow, the people must internalize their ideal parent-in other words, they must parent themselves--and then raise the next generation. Their focus must shift to the next generation, the one without grandparents. The experience makes us better appreciate why the concept of l'dor vador ("from generation to generation") is so central in our tradition.

Since mourning is a creative process, we can ask what new growth there is in the Israelites' understanding of the Decalogue. Its commandments initially were addressed to those who had directly experienced the exodus from Egypt. If these words were to have the same force for subsequent generations, they must understand the word "Egypt" to represent all the ways in which they are constricted, degraded, and enslaved. And so, as those about to enter the Promised Land hear Moses repeat these words, they think of the "Egypt" of loss and the long "hard labor" of mourning. The God who had brought them out of Egypt becomes the God who comforts them, dries their tears, and encourages them to continue on their way after their parents have been buried in the wilderness. The God of comfort becomes a crucial addition to the ways in which the Israelites understand the One who freed them "from Egypt with a mighty hand" (6:21). As they prepare to settle in the Promised Land and face the vicissitudes of the next part of their formation as the Jewish people, this revelation of the Divine will prove to be particularly important.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Carol Ochs teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.