The Ten Commandments are made up of five pairs.
Usually, when it comes to the Decalogue, which of course, we will be reading this Shabbat for Parashat Va’etchanan, we associate them with two vertical lists of five commandments each. And we explain that one list relates to our relationship with Hashem, and the other to our connection with our fellow human beings.
But the Mechilta, that great anthology of Midrashic material, teaches us that actually, the Ten Commandments are made up of five horizontal pairs and it makes so much sense:
At the top, we have Mitzvot 1 and 6: ‘Believe in Hashem’ and ‘Don’t murder’. If God forbid, one takes the life of a fellow human being, created in the image of Hashem – that is an assault on Almighty God Himself.
The second pair is: ‘Not to worship idols’ and ‘Not to commit adultery’. Both of these Mitzvot speak to us about fidelity, about being loyal. And in the Torah, with regard to both idolatry and adultery, the same verb, ‘Liznot’, is actually used. And in English as well, adultery and idolatry are similar terms. And the message is that we need to be loyal and trustworthy.
And then you have the third pair: ‘Not to take Hashem’s name in vein’ and ‘Not to steal’. If one takes Hashem’s name in vein, God forbid, one is removing it from its natural context of Kedusha. One is misappropriating it and then one is causing Hashem’s name to be associated with falsehood, which of course is wrong.
And then you have the fourth pair: ‘Keeping Shabbat’ and ‘Not bearing false witness’. The Torah tells us that the Mitzvah of Shabbat is given to us ‘Zecher Lema’aseh Bereishit’, ‘to remember the days of creation’. That is when Hashem proactively created the world in six days and then he rested from ‘Melacha’, from his creative activity on the seventh. So, if God forbid, one infringes the laws of Shabbat and one engages in ‘Melacha’ on the Shabbat day, one is bearing false witness to what transpired during those days of creation.
And then we have the last pair: ‘To respect our parents’ and ‘Not to covet’. There are very few things in this world over which we have no control whatsoever, and one of them is who our parents are. When it comes to coveting, the antidote is, to appreciate what we have in this world and that certainly is the case with regard to our families. There is no value in coveting the wonderful families that other people have, rather we should make the most of the families we’ve got. To strive always to have happy and healthy family units.
So, what emerges from this is that when it comes to the Ten Commandments, it’s not only the important content that counts, it’s even the way in which they were presented that makes a big difference.