Commandments Express: Independence and Identity

New column on the Commandments

Several years ago, I put together what I thought was a really cool and interesting chart about the commandments. Everyone I showed it to was very impressed with it. I showed it to a couple of publishers. They also liked it very much, but didn’t know what to do with it: “It’s not a book” they explained.

After sitting in my drawer for a couple of years I decided to dust it off and start converting it into a book format, and slowly add a few comments to each section of the chart. Any and all input is appreciated.

Following is my initial effort which deals with the commandments of this weeks Torah reading:

Commandments Express – Independence and Identity

The very first commandment given to the fledgling Jewish nation, still in the clutches of Egyptian servitude is that of consecrating the New Moon and establishing their own independent calendar system [Commandment #4].

This is symbolic on many levels. The simplest explanation for this commandment’s prominence may be as a declaration of independence. The most direct implication of slavery, besides the obvious lack of freedom, is that time is not yours. Every second, every moment, must be accounted to one’s supervisors. God then instructs the children of Israel to make time their own. By determining and declaring the start of the new month, the Jewish people take possession of Time itself.

Having grounded the soon-to-be-freed nation in time, and with the Jews having made a metaphysical declaration of independence, the next step is a demonstration of freedom in an outright, very physical act of destructive and bloody rebellion.

The Jews are commanded to take the very animals that the Egyptians worship as Gods and slaughter them in an extremely public display of contempt, fearlessness and even superiority to their Egyptian masters [Commandment #5] – which became the Passover sacrifice.

The next series of commandments continue to deal with two different aspects of the Passover sacrifice. How to eat it [Commandments #6, 7, 8, 15, 16] and who may eat it [Commandments #13, 14, 17].

Now that the Jews have very symbolically declared freedom (God will soon do the practical emancipation), God is making two critical points.

One is that there is still the rule of law. In this case, divine law. Freedom from tyranny does not mean one can do whatever they want. Jews were freed for a purpose beyond their own ease and comfort. They were freed to serve God and become a beacon of light (whatever that entails) to the world. Serving God means following the commandments no matter how esoteric or detailed they may be.

The second point is one of definition. Who is a Jew? Who is a member of this newly identified tribe? Who can participate in this prototypical commandment? The answer is dependent on two different components. It is dependent on ones personal theological allegiance (a Jewish apostate is out), and on being circumcised (if you’re a man).

The next grouping of commandments order the consumption of Matzah on the first night of Passover [Commandment #10], but more extensively prohibits the eating, seeing or possession of any Hametz (leavened bread) throughout the entire Passover holiday [Commandments #9, 11, 12, 19, 20].

These commandments also contain a high level of symbolism. The Matzah is both to commemorate the night of Exodus, but it is also the antithesis of the fat, bloated leavened bread that we consume throughout the year.

During the celebration of our nations birth and independence, the elements of gastronomic comfort and even gluttony are spiritually poisonous to us. God is of the opinion that even seeing Hametz is harmful to a Jew during Passover.

Continuing nationhood is empty without a national memory. As such the highlight of the Passover Seder is the recounting of the Exodus [Commandment #21].

Directly connected to the Exodus, the final plague of the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, and to further highlight God’s unique relationship to Jewish people are the commandments of the firstborn [Commandments #18, 22, 23].

By all rights, apparently all firstborns should have been killed during the plague, including Jewish ones. By God actively protecting them during the plague, he in a sense “acquired” Jewish firstborns for His exclusive service. Jewish animals are also included. Typical sacrificial animals are brought as sacrifices, however for some reason the non-sacrificial donkey is included in the firstborn commandments. However, being non-sacrificial it needs to either be “swapped” for a lamb or killed if a swap is not affected.

All sacrificial commandments (and there are a lot) only apply when there is an active Temple in Jerusalem.

There is another commandment that is given after the night of Exodus but before the next series of commandments that start with the famous Ten Commandments.

The commandment is to restrict the distance one walks beyond a residential area on the Sabbath [Commandment #24].

One reason might be for practical considerations. The freed Jewish tribes were now on the march and camping in an orderly almost military-like organization. On the day of rest, God wanted to reinforce the need to stay together and the sense of community. It’s not the time for traveling or exploring beyond the boundaries. The Jewish people would need to stay close to each other in order to grow as a cohesive unit and be able to receive the next series of commandments as a unified nation.

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Independence and Identity -- Commandments

Independence and Identity -- Commandments

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