Yitro: Apples, I-G-d, and J-Tablets

D’var Torah: Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

By Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.  

February 10, 2012

Apples, I-G-d, and J-Tablets

In the beginning, the Designer created apples. Then He/She created beings with artificial intelligence, and the Free Will to misuse it.

The elegantly simple apples functioned as intended, but the Designer regarded the humans as defective and even regretted creating them. He/She destroyed most of them in a flood, but eventually decided to upgrade their programming. This required a major software rewrite. To facilitate its introduction, the Designer chose Moses as exclusive distributor and revealed Him/Herself as “I-G-d” at a desert hot-spot. Initial installation logistics were plagued with bugs, but He/She finally downloaded a new “MS-DOS” (Mitzvah Superimposed Divine Operating System) to an expectant but fearful, and entirely tech-unsavy, mixed multitude.

Unlike apple knowledge, MS-DOS was not eat-and-play. It came packaged in a heavy stone Tablet, which could only be loaded through study. The new software had Ten Command lines of code. The Tablet introduced radical features, including monotheism and a Day of Rest, innovations that proved incredibly robust, enduring for more than three-thousand years, albeit with many after-market modifications.

Although I-G-d introduced the Tablet from the Cloud, impressively accompanied by smoke, fire, horn-blaring, lightning, and earthquakes, its release was hardly without incident. For example, outrageous customer behavior at the launch infuriated Moses (who despite many outstanding qualities, had anger management issues). He smashed the prototype and made the people ground it into powder and drink it! (In those days, the customer wasn’t always right.) Another big problem was that, whereas the Garden and its apples had convenient tech support (the shrewdest animal in the Garden); the far more complicated J-Tablet had none.

According to our tradition, the Designer explained it to Moses, who explained it to Joshua, who explained it to the Elders, who explained it to the Prophets, who explained it to the sages, and they to the rabbis. However, others disputed the authenticity of these purported usage instructions. They asserted that human programmers, not I-G-d, had added 603 lines of additional code and/or that later rabbis had added innumerable “patches.” These critics claimed that the additional code was actually malware, unintended by the Designer and assuredly unrecognizable by Moses. In our time, many deny attribution of the J-Tablet to I-G-d at all -- or even doubt the existence of any Divine Designer. (They attribute the Ten Commands and the rest of Torah to rabbinic hackers).

Still, by just about any measure, the J-Tablet has been phenomenally successful. In fact, we Jews should be both proud and humbled because the J-Tablet and its MS-DOS, now the industry standard for moral behavior, were specifically given to us.

Therein also lies a serious problem. A close reading of the warranty shows that we don’t actually own the J-Tablet or its Code; we’re only successors-in-interest under I-G-d’s license of conditional usage. Rather than remembering, much less safeguarding, the Ten Command Codes, many of us virtually ignore them. We depict them artistically in our sanctuaries, and stand in “respect” while they are read during services. But, for too many of us, that’s about all.

Moreover, it’s often non-Jews who show more interest and respect. For example, many want to post them in courthouses and “teach them diligently” in public schools. Not only do most Jews oppose this, our Halachah actually forbids us from reciting the Ten Command Codes publicly, even during our own religious services, except as part of the Torah reading cycle! It wasn’t always so. They were once prominent in our liturgy, recited immediately before the Shema and included in T’fillin. But, in the infancy of rabbinic Judaism, challengers argued that only they were written by I-G-d. So, the rabbis all but hid them. It’s ironic. Most Jews nowadays are not halachic and certainly don’t listen to their rabbis, but this halachah of Thou Shalt Hide the Ten Commands, they obey!

Anyway, that pronouncement was long ago – even before the Commodore 64. Now, Judaism faces different challenges, such as the widespread disaffection, disconnection, and minimal Jewish education of many Jews. Their I-Pad – or maybe just their “I” -- has become much more important than their I-G-d.

Yet, almost despite Jewish neglect, the Ten Commands have become a powerful cultural touchstone, even chiseled into the Supreme Court. They retain great moral and spiritual power. We need to log back in to them, even as we remember that our Designer intended the J-Tablet to govern our conduct.

It’s past time to bring the Ten Commands out of their carrying cases (Arks) and reinstall them into our daily lives, prayers, and public discourse. We need to reclaim them publically and proudly (albeit with humility) as our once and still essential Divine Operating System.

Aren’t we still the People of the Tablet?


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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3