By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
And G‑d spoke all these words, to say.
The locomotive was making its first appearance in the little town of old. No one had ever seen a horseless carriage before. Every one of the townspeople had gathered at the new station to witness history in the making. The gun was fired, and with a flourish of huffing and puffing, the locomotive roared down the tracks. Well . . . the engine, that is. Unfortunately, the schlemiel whose job it was to do it had forgotten to hitch the other cars to the engine, and they were left behind in a trail of smoke. Sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men don’t come to fruition: a business strategy, a football game plan, or even—perish the thought—a synagogue resolution made on Yom Kippur.
The introduction to the Ten Commandments we will read in this week’s parashah is: “And G‑d spoke all these words, to say (leimor) . . .” Now, when the Torah uses the word leimor, “to say,” it is usually G‑d telling Moshe something important that he, in turn, should pass on and tell the Jews. So the word leimor makes perfect sense. He said it to him to say it to them. But here we have a problem. You see, every Jew was present at Sinai and, according to the mystics, that includes even the unborn souls of future generations. So there was no need for Moshe to pass on anything to anyone. All the Jews heard the Ten Commandments directly from G‑d, so why the word leimor? To say to whom?
Rabbi Dov Ber, the great Maggid of Mezeritch, explained that here the word leimor means “to speak to you”—that these words should not remain mere words, but they should resonate and say something meaningful to you personally. They should be said and heard so that they continue to reverberate forever in your minds, heart, and deeds. The Ten Commandments must not remain an abstract idea, an unhitched engine, a nice philosophy, or an interesting cultural practice. The Ten Commandments must be relevant enough to make a difference in our lives; otherwise, to whom did G‑d say them and whatever for?
• • •
The rabbi was in his study when in walked Berl, the town pickpocket. “Rabbi, I was walking down the street and found this wallet lying on the ground. I know that to return a lost article is a mitzvah of the Torah, so I brought it in. Perhaps you can make an announcement in shul and find the rightful owner.”
The rabbi sees there is a fair amount of cash in the wallet. He is so inspired at Berl’s change of heart that he embraces him and congratulates him on his reformation. Later, on his way out, the rabbi notices that the gold wristwatch he had in his jacket pocket is missing. He calls Berl and asks him if perchance he may have inadvertently taken the watch. Berl confesses to the crime, and the rabbi is rather perplexed. “I don’t understand you, Berl. You find a wallet full of cash in the street and you return it, and then you go and steal my gold watch?”
Berl answers, “Rabbi, returning lost articles is a big mitzvah, but when it comes to picking pockets, business is business.”
We all believe and we all want to do mitzvos, big and small. The trick is to translate our inner piety into outer practice. What does my faith do for me? Does it speak to me? How does it transform my behavior, my life? Does it make any tangible difference in my value system? The Torah cannot remain a theory on the drawing board.
The Ten Commandments do indeed speak to us. The question is, are we listening? v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.