Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Ten Commandments--Forty Years On (portion Yitro)

Forty years ago, as a blizzard blanketed my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, I seriously encountered this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, for the first time, at my Bar Mitzvah.  Standing in front of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in my abominably loud plaid sports jacket (OK, it was 1974), guided by my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, I made my way through the Ten Commandments.  Since it was not yet customary in Reform synagogues to leyn (chant) the portion, I read it, first in Hebrew from the Torah scroll and then in English, following the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation.  By far the most challenging moment of the day came when, following that English passage, I had to declare, out loud and in front of all of my adolescent peers: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s ass.”  At thirteen, this was embarrassingly hard to say and even harder to do!

Four decades later, fashion and English Torah translations have both, thankfully, improved, but the Ten Commandments themselves (or, as they are known in Hebrew, aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Utterances) remain central.  As I have grown and changed through the years, I have tried to live my life by their principles and guidance, along with the rest of the Torah’s mitzvot, even though I have broken, often repeatedly, eight of the ten (all but #6 and #7 for those who are counting).  As I have grown and changed, so has my understanding of, and appreciation for, their wisdom.  And now that the last commandment is read as a neighbor’s donkey, it’s a lot easier to both keep and read!

Next Shabbat, I will mark the fortieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah in the best way I can imagine: learning about the Ten Commandments with my community and family at our annual Feast of Torah.  Sandy Berenter has done her usual extraordinary job of organizing a marvelous program of Jewish learning and living, centered this year around these core teachings that lie at the heart of our tradition and, indeed, of all of western culture.  Please join me there to study and share and celebrate together.  I even promise to tone down the sports jacket!

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