Weekly Letter: Deeper Meaning of the 10 Commandments

This week, as we read in the Torah Parshas Yisro, we present a letter from the Rebbe discussing the deeper significance of the Ten Commandments – the connection between the profound principle of monotheism contained in the first two commandments and the apparently  simple and obvious injunctions of the last few commandments. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s personal trusted secretary, Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

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                                                                                                                                  By the Grace of G-d

16th Shevat, 5724

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dr.

Minneapolis, Minn.

Greeting and Blessing:

It was a pleasure to meet you at the Farbreingen and it was gratifying to receive regards from you. Recently, I was informed that you addressed a gathering at the home of ….. , at which you gave your impressions of your visit here, and stimulated your audience towards greater activity to strengthen yiddishkeit in your community in general and the work of the Regional Merkos Office in particular. I understand that you spoke, as our Sages said, with “words coming from the heart,” and I therefore hope that they have penetrated the heart and have found fertile soil to take root and produce good results.

Although I have not heard form you since our meeting, I trust that this will also come eventually, for there is really no substitution for one’s own impressions when delivered personally, rather than through a second party, even if it is an eyewitness account.

At any rate, I wanted you to know that I was very gratified to receive your regards, as well as a report about the said meeting.

Now that we are in the weekly portion of Mattan Torah, we can all draw inspiration from it, as indeed we ought to, in accordance with the teaching of the Old Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shuchan Aruch, that the weekly portion of the Torah should be a source of timely inspiration and instruction to every Jew, in all his affairs of that week. Mattan Torah has the further significance in that it has to be regarded and accepted as a new experience every day. This is also evidenced from the brocho over the Torah which we make every morning in the morning prayers – nossen ha’Torah – in the present tense. As you know, our Sages declared that the words of the Torah should be as new every day.

One of the basic messages of the Ten Commandments is contained in the fact that they begin with “I am,” etc., i.e. the profound principle of monotheism, which in itself was a tremendous revolutionary idea in those days of idolatry, dominated by the polytheistic culture of Egypt (as indicated in detail in the Second Commandment, where all forms of idolatry are strictly prohibited). Incidentally, the emphasis on monotheism and the denial of polytheism is to be seen not only in the fact that these ideas form the subject of the first two Commandments, but also in the quantity of words and detail which they contain. At the same time, the Ten Commandments conclude with such apparently simple and obvious injunctions as “Thou shall not steal,” etc.

The profundity of monotheism, with which the Ten Commandments begin, and the simplicity of the ethical and moral laws with which the Ten Commandments conclude, point to an important lesson namely:

  1. The true believer in G-d is not the one who holds abstract ideas, but the one whose knowledge of G-d leads him to the proper daily conduct even in ordinary and commonplace matters, in his dealings with his neighbors and the respect for their property even if it be an ox or an ass, etc.
  2. The ethical and moral laws, even those that are obvious as “Thou shall not steal and Thou shall not murder,” will have validity and will be observed only if they are based on the first and second Commandments, that is to say, based on Divine authority, the authority of the One and Only G-d.

If in previous generations there were people who doubted the need of Divine authority for common morality and ethics in the belief that human reason is sufficient authority for morality and ethics, our present generation has, unfortunately, in a most devastating and tragic way, refuted this mistaken notion.  For it is precisely the nation which had excelled itself in the exact sciences, the humanities and even philosophy and ethics, that turned out to be the most depraved nation of the word, making an ideal of murder and robbery, etc. Anyone who knows how insignificant was the minority of Germans who opposed the Hitler regime, realizes that the German cult was not something practiced by a few individuals, but had embraced the vast majority of tat nation, who considered itself the super race, etc. Surely it is unnecessary to elaborate on this at greater length.

With all good wishes and

With blessing,

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The above letter is from The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).

These letters were written originally in English and were prepared for publication by Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, whose responsibility it was the Rebbe’s correspondence in English and several other languages.

We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.

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