You must have won the lottery. What could be more festive, promising, or tempting than starting a column with the weekly Torah portion, Jethro, which focuses on the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments? “I am the Lord your God,” “thou shall not murder,” “honor your father and mother,” “remember the Sabbath day”—what can you possibly say against such laws?
I am suddenly beginning to realize that this is also the problem: there is nothing to object to and no need to justify it. These are big laws, simple and genuine, laws that speak for themselves. This is a group of laws that does not expose itself to complexity, to dilemmas, to the difficult encounters between values and contradictory desires, to the difficult blows of the ground of reality.
I admit that I’m in a trap. The Ten Commandments, the moment they were given at Mount Sinai and before the decisive encounter with the reality of life, are like stones that it’s hard to turn over.
With typical stubbornness I continue to try. I choose a fateful game, I ask myself what I would do if I were asked to reduce the Ten Commandments, to find their essence, to get rid of one law on the list each time until I reach the most fundamental law, which also includes within it the content of the previous nine commandments.
Thou shall not murder. Period. The truth is that I have no internal conflict. I choose “thou shall not murder.” In contrast to all the other laws, I see this law as being the only one that has no compromises, whose vehemence, and the unequivocalness that characterizes its appearance in the Ten Commandments, will not be affected by any encounter with reality. Thou shall not murder. Period. End of discussion.
As for violating all the other laws, I find that I am prepared to exercise varying degrees of tolerance. All the other offenses are correctable, according to my understanding. Murder is final and therefore the prohibition must be final. I choose “thou shall not murder,” and I am not prepared to place limitations on the prohibition.
I know you will say that I am naïve or irresponsible. You’ll tell me that reality is much more complicated. You’ll remind me about the Talmudic principle that “if someone comes to kill you, kill him first…” You’ll explain to me that war has laws of its own. You’ll quote to me that “he who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled” and explain to me that we live in the Middle East.
You’ll also tell me that this is an invitation to collective suicide and I will answer that this will not be the first historical attempt to live without violence, and that these attempts did not always fail. That this position will force us to find solutions, to be integrated, to adjust ourselves to our environment.
I will also seek to claim that the desire to live, the impulse to survive, does not justify any behavior. That Jews throughout the generations gave their lives for principles less important in my eyes than the basic command “thou shall not murder.” I will demand that we all clarify for ourselves what our “red lines” are, if we have them, unless the desire to survive justifies anything. And if there are red lines, then why don’t we place them as close as possible to the command “thou shall not murder”?
Perhaps it isn’t nice to talk about this on the Sabbath eve, but many intelligent people tell me that it is possible that the end of the world is near, nearer than we want to know. The faith in the power of wars to protect Israelis is sad, stupid, and mainly ruinous. On this Sabbath eve I want to invite us to seriously confront the naïve, vehement, and unpopular option of the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not murder.
Shabbat shalom and lechaim.
Dr. Ruchama Weiss is a researcher and lecturer in Talmud at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, at Kolot, and at Bet Shmuel. She is the editor of the series “Judaism Here and Now,” published by Yediot Books.