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Aseres Hadibros: Engrave Them on Your Soul (Parshas Yisro)

parsha sefer shemos Feb 03, 2021


One night, four students stayed out late, completely disregarding the test they had the next day. Before school the next the morning, they hatched a brilliant plan to avoid taking the test. They covered themselves with grease and dirt and went to the principal's office. They told him all about how their car had gotten a flat tire the previous night on their way home from a wedding, and how they had to spend the whole night pushing it home. 

The principal listened attentively to their tale of woe, and kindly offered them a retest on the following day. The students gratefully accepted the offer and spent the whole night studying in anticipation of the test.

When they arrived at the principal's office the next morning, he separated them into four different rooms before handing them their test papers. The test had only two questions: 

1) What is your name?  __________ (1 Points)

2) Which tire popped?  __________ (99 Points).


Truth is powerful, crucial, and one of the core values in Judaism. Without truth, we lack a higher purpose, a foundation to our existence. In Parshas Yisro, Klal Yisrael hear the ultimate truth, the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments), as they embrace their lofty mission in this world.

We are commanded to treat every parsha, pasuk, and word in the Torah with equal awe and respect, and yet there is a prevailing custom to stand in shul as the Aseres Hadibros are read, seemingly attributing unique significance to them. The Aseres Hadibros are carved above the Aron in almost every shul, and we view them as the foundation of the Torah. What is it about these words that merit special treatment? In order to understand the centrality and importance of these Ten Commandments, we must delve into their deeper meaning.


First and Second Luchos

One unique feature of the luchos is that there were two sets given to us. The original was created by Hashem and given to Moshe, whereas the second set was hewn by the hands of Moshe. However, the difference between these two sets is not simply practical; the two sets of luchos are fundamentally different. As the Beis HaLevi explains[1], the first luchos were a transcendent, angelic, other-worldly form of Torah. The entirety of Torah Shebiksav and Torah Sheba’al Peh was contained within these tablets, and all of it was clear and accessible. After the Cheit Ha'Egel (sin of the golden calf), Klal Yisrael lost access to this Torah, and the second set of luchos provided a relatively limited and human form of Torah.[2] However, the transcendent reality introduced through the giving of the first set of luchos remains, and it is worth understanding the impact of this set.


Matan Torah vs. Creation of the World


Hashem created the physical world by expressing the infinite oneness of the spiritual world into a physical world of multiplicity.[3] This world of multiplicity masks the underlying oneness of creation, and it takes great effort to discover and reveal this oneness. Avraham Avinu undertook a lonely spiritual journey towards recognizing and living this truth,[4] but it wasn't until Matan Torah that the entire world recognized it. When Hashem gave us the Torah, He reconnected the physical world of multiplicity back to its transcendent source of oneness. As such, all of Klal Yisrael received nevuah (prophecy) and experienced the infinite truth of reality.


This idea explains a strange pasuk regarding Matan Torah. The pasuk says that when Hashem gave us the Torah, "ro'im es ha'kolos", we "saw the sounds".[5] We don’t see sounds, we hear them. What, then, does this mean?


As we have previously discussed,[6] the spiritual concept of seeing is the idea of observing something as it is, in a completely static state. When you see a picture, you grasp the entire image instantaneously. There's no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, at once, with no effort. The spiritual concept of hearing, however, reflects movement and a progression of understanding. Hearing requires effort, it necessitates the reconstruction of bits of sound into words and meaning. 


This world - Olam Hazeh - is a place of movement, a place of hearing. The transcendent spiritual realm, Olam Habah (The World to Come), is a place lacking movement. It is a place of static perfection, a place of seeing. Matan Torah was an Olam Habah experience that occurred in this world. We all became prophets, transcending the physical world of time and space, experiencing the infinite spiritual nature of reality. In such a dimension, there is no hearing or movement, only sight. Therefore, sounds weren't heard, they were seen.


Anochi vs. Bereishis


The nature of Matan Torah is indicated in the very words used to describe it. The original creation of the physical world is introduced with the word Bereishis, which begins with the letter Beis. The Aseres Hadibros, and by extension Matan Torah, begin with the letter Aleph. The Maharal explains that Beis, the second letter of the aleph beis, represents the concept of multiplicity and twoness. Its numerical value is two, connected to the multiplicity of our physical world. Aleph, on the other hand, is the letter of oneness- transcendence and spirituality, reflecting Hashem and the spiritual dimension. Aleph is the very first letter in the alphabet and has the numerical value of one. It is a silent letter, reflecting its spiritual, transcendent nature. It also reflects spiritual elevation, as expressed in many words that have the word “aleph” (Aleph, Lamed, Pei) as their root (shoresh). “Le'aleph” means to teach, elevate, or lift to a higher spiritual dimension. “Aluph” refers to the highest-ranking military position and “eleph” is the highest number in the Hebrew decimal system.[7] 


The Torah begins with the letter Beis, because Parshas Bereishis begins by describing Hashem's creation of the physical world, the process of Hashem's oneness becoming expressed into multiplicity. This process is most appropriately encapsulated by the letter Beis- the letter of twoness that stems from oneness.


While the creation of the physical world reflects the finite expression of oneness into multiplicity, Matan Torah was exactly the opposite. The experience of Torah being brought into this world was an ascension from twoness to oneness. This was an experience of Hashem Himself, an unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimension of reality. The Aseres Hadibros therefore begin with an Aleph, the letter of oneness and transcendence.[8][9]




Building on the concepts we have just developed, we can now understand the uniqueness of the Aseres Hadibros in relation to the rest of the Torah. Many assume that the Aseres Hadibros are simply the ten most important mitzvos in the Torah, which is why they receive special attention. However, there is much deeper significance to these specific ten mitzvos. Rashi[10] explains that the Aseres Hadibros include the rest of the mitzvos within them. These Ten Commandments are the fundamental root mitzvos, and the other 603 mitzvos emanate from these ten root categories.[11]


Rav Tzadok[12] explains that just as the 613 mitzvos emanate from the Aseres Hadibros, all of the Aseres Hadibros, and by extension, all the mitzvos in the Torah, emanate from the first of the Aseres Hadibros, Anochi Hashem. 

This first dibrah declares Hashem's existence and establishes the necessity of our faithfulness to Hashem and his will.[13] Whenever a person performs a mitzvah, they express their adherence to the first of the Aseres Hadibros by acknowledging Hashem's existence and their commitment to fulfilling His will.


Rav Tzadok continues by explaining that the second dibrah, the prohibition of avodah zarah (idolatry), is the root of all mitzvos loh sa'aseh (negative commandments). When one denies the will of Hashem, transgressing a negative commandment, he distances himself from Hashem, serving himself instead. This is an abstracted form of avodah zarah, as idolatry is the concept of betraying our loyalty and relationship with Hashem.[14] On a deeper level, when one violates a loh sa’aseh it is also a violation of the first dibrah, Anochi Hashem, as this root mitzvah contains within it all of avodas Hashem. When one fails to acknowledge Hashem, they squander the opportunity to fulfill the first dibrah of building a loving connection with our Creator.


Two Sets of Luchos


As we previously developed, the luchos are an expression of oneness and the root of our connection to Hashem in this world. An obvious question then arises. Why are the dibros split into two separate groups, the right side and the left side? Why fragment the ultimate expression of oneness into two separate pieces? 

The commentators explain that while the mitzvos on the right side of the luchos are bein adam la'Makom (commandments between man and God), the mitzvos on the left side are bein adam le'chaveiro (between man and his fellow man). There are layers of meaning behind this division. The simplest lesson is that it is fundamentally important to both treat our fellow man properly and to serve Hashem; both hold extreme value. One should not view mitzvos bein adam le’chaveiro as purely a means to connect with Hashem; when engaged in a mitzvah bein adam le’chaveiro, one should see the infinite value of every human being and treat them with the dignity they deserve. When one visits the sick, gives charity, or helps one in need, this is not merely the fulfillment of Hashem’s mitzvah, this is also an opportunity to help and connect with another person.


The deeper meaning of this parallel is that each and every human being is created b’tzelem Elokim, as an extension and expression of Hashem in this world. While mitzvos bein adam la'Makom guide us along our individual journey back to Hashem, the mitzvos bein adam le'chavero inspire within us the understanding that we are part of a collective, higher,  interconnected self - Klal Yisrael - and that we, as a united nation and whole, are a reflection of Hashem in this world.


The Parallel Between the Two Luchos


While the general juxtaposition of the mitzvos on the right and left sides of the luchos carries fundamental significance, there is a powerful connection between the specific commandments on each side as well. Each individual dibrah on the right parallels the corresponding dibrah on the left. Together, they make up a unified whole of connection to both Hashem and one’s fellow man. Let us explore these connections in detail.


Anochi Hashem and Lo Tirtzach


The first dibrah is “Anochi Hashem Elokecha”- I am Hashem your God,[15] the statement that establishes Hashem as the life-force of the world, the Source of reality. This statement requires us to recognize this fundamental truth and commit to living a life faithful to it. The first dibrah on the left side of the luchos - parallel to the dibrah of Anochi Hashem Elokecha - is “lo tirtzach”,[16] the prohibition against murder. Hashem created each and every human being with a chelek Elokah mi'ma'al, (a spark of Godliness from above), and killing another human being eliminates that spark from the world. Anochi Hashem expresses the ultimate source of life and existence, while murder is the ultimate shattering of existence. 

Furthermore, the ability to take away life belongs only to the one who gives life. Murdering another person claims the power and authority to eliminate a person's life, essentially claiming: “I am Hashem, the controller of life.” Accordingly, murder directly contradicts the truth of Anochi Hashem Elokecha, that Hashem alone is the Source of this world and everything in it. 


Avodah Zarah and Adultery


Once the primary principle of Anochi Hashem is established, the logical next step is ensuring that we are faithful to that truth.


Many think of idolatry as the worship of statues and inanimate objects. However, any intelligent person can see that a piece of wood or stone carved out by a human being could not possibly hold any power. The deeper understanding behind the worship of idolatry, as the Rambam[17], Ramchal[18], and many others explain, is the worshiping of intermediaries, instead of sourcing yourself back to Hashem Himself. Hashem created the world in such a way that there are levels of reality. Hashem is the ultimate source, and the intermediaries receive energy from Him, and then manifest it into the world. Avodah zarah is when you don't recognize Hashem as the source, but rather trace things back only as far as the intermediaries. The statues that people "worship" are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they are serving. Worshiping avodah zarah is betraying our true source for the intermediaries, the ultimate unfaithfulness to Hashem. Matan Torah established our marriage to Hashem, and idolatry is the betrayal of the commitment and connection of that marriage.[19]


The prohibition against adultery is the corresponding dibrah on the left. Adultery is unfaithfulness in marriage, betraying the trust and loyalty integral to a relationship. Any illicit relationship is a breakdown of what a proper relationship represents; therefore avodah zarah and adultery are inherently connected.


Saying Hashem's Name in Vain and Kidnapping


The third dibrah is the prohibition against uttering Hashem's name in vain, while the sixth, corresponding dibrah - Lo Signov - is the prohibition against kidnapping (a form of stealing). The practical connection between the two is explained in the Mechiltah, which states that one who kidnaps will then have to swear falsely to cover up his tracks.


Additionally, both kidnapping and uttering Hashem’s name in vein are a misuse of something that one does not own. One has no right to use Hashem's name in vain, as it does not belong to them and they have no permission to use it. Similarly, kidnapping someone is a form of stealing, of taking something that does not belong to them.


There is a deeper connection between the two as well. When one testifies in court, he must swear using Hashem's name. This is not merely a practical requirement, but also a reflection of the essence of Hashem's name. Hashem's name represents objective truth - the Gemara[20] states that Hashem's "signature" is emes, as Hashem is truth. When one swears falsely or uses Hashem's name in vain, he places Hashem's name in the context of that which is false or meaningless, connecting Hashem to those falsehoods. This takes that which is transcendent and corrupts it, displacing it from its lofty, proper place.

When one kidnaps someone, he does the same. He takes a person who was created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of Hashem) and displaces him, removing him from his proper status and place in the world, treating him as an object. Just as displacing Hashem's name from its proper lofty place shows a complete lack of respect for Hashem's greatness,[21] kidnapping shows a complete disregard for humanity's greatness.[22]


Shabbos and False Testimony


The fourth dibrah on the right side of the luchos is the commandment to remember and guard Shabbos, while the fourth dibrah on the left side is the prohibition against false testimony in court.


The parallel between these two dibros is the use of testimony and speech. Shabbos is when we testify that Hashem created and runs the world, realigning and reconnecting ourselves to this truth and correcting any false perceptions that we may have developed throughout the week. False testimony is a corruption of this principle, using testimony to distort the truth. It is interesting that lying can only occur in this world, where hiddenness and deceit exist. In this world, one has the ability to pretend that something that exists does not exist, and vice versa. In Olam Habah (the World to Come), however, everything is transparent and clear; lying is impossible, and truth permeates everything. This is why the Gemara[23]compares Shabbos to Olam Habah. Shabbos connects us to the ultimate truth, to our ultimate destination, to a state of absolute clarity. It connects us back to creation, and simultaneously, towards our ultimate destination. Even deeper, though, it also connects you to who you are right now, allowing you to fully experience who you have become, to fully experience your own internal truth.


Another parallel between Shabbos and false testimony is the concept of connection. Shabbos connects all aspects of life together. It is a time when the spiritual is closer to the physical, when the soul is more connected to the body.[24] Shabbos is also when Hashem and Klal Yisrael connect on a deeper level, and when Klal YIsrael connects most deeply with each other. Lying, however, achieves the opposite. It uses speech to create disconnection. While speech is the mechanism of expressing internal truth outwards, lying is a manipulation and misuse of the very purpose of speech. Speech gives a person the ability to express his inner world, to genuinely connect with other people through sharing inner consciousness, expressed outwards through speech.[25] When a person shares a lie, the other person thinks that he has connected with you, that he knows something from within your inner world, that you have bequeathed a piece of your very self to him. In truth, however, all he has is the lie you have fed him.


Interestingly, the Hebrew word for connection is "kesher," and, not coincidentally, the Hebrew word for a lie is "sheker," the exact same letters, but scrambled. Falsehood is a corruption of what could have been genuine connection. Sheker, falsehood, is taking the potential for connection and perverting it into disconnect and falsehood. While the listener thinks he is connecting to you, nothing could be further from the truth.[26]


Kibud Av V'Eim and Lo Sachmod (Jealousy)


Before comparing the last two dibros, we must first address an apparent problem with one of them. Kibud av v'em, the commandment to honor one's parents, is the fifth commandment, the last of those on the right side of the luchos. However, the right side of the luchos is reserved for mitzvos bein adam la'Makom (between man and God) and while it may not always seem so, parents are human too. Why, then, is the mitzvah of honoring one's parents included on the right side of the luchos? 

The right side of the luchos contains the mitzvos bein adam la'Makom, but the deeper theme of the right side is mitzvos between man and his source (bein adam l’Mekor). The first four are bein Adam la'Makom, between man and his ultimate source, while the fifth, kibud av v'eim, is between man and his more immediate source, his parents. This juxtaposition reveals a deep connection between these mitzvos: The first step towards tracing oneself back to Hashem is recognizing that I am not my own creator, that I have a source. Kibud av v'eim is the first step towards doing so. Recognizing our parents as our source is the first step in tracing ourselves back to our ancestors, then to Avraham, then to Noach, eventually all the way back to Adam Ha’Rishon, until finally, we get back to Hashem Himself. In doing so, we trace our individual existence back to Hashem's creation of the world itself. Kibud Av v'Eim is therefore the perfect transition between bein adam la'makom and bein adam le’chaveiro, as this mitzvah serves as the springboard for the connection between you and Hashem. Recognizing that someone created us helps train us to source everything in our lives back to Hashem.[27]



Aside from being jealous of other people’s possessions or circumstances, there is a tendency to be jealous of other people’s successes and achievements. However, the same principle applies here: nobody else’s successes affects ours, nor should it diminish our self-worth.[31] We are all part of one nation, one people, one team.[32] There is no room for jealousy when we are all working towards a shared mission; on the contrary, we should celebrate each other’s victories as our own![33]


This is what kibud av v'eim teaches us: the importance of tracing everything in our life back to its source, to Hashem. When we realize that our entire existence in this world, and all of the circumstances and challenges that we face, comes from Hashem, there is no place for jealousy, as Hashem has given each of us the exact tools we need to succeed in our mission.


Engrave Them on Your Heart


When we picture the luchos, we instinctively conjure up an image of two rounded tablets. However, the Gemara explicitly states that the luchos were cubic or rectangular. If so, why does almost every shul depict the luchos with two rounded tops, as an almost heart shaped figure?[34]

The depth behind this is that the luchos are intrinsically connected to the heart. The Aseres Hadibros are the heart of the Torah, and we are told to engrave them into our hearts, "kasvem al luach libecha"[35].


This idea touches upon the unique nature of the luchos and how they were written. There are four possible ways to record an idea in writing:

  • The first is to use an adhesive, such as glue, paste, or tape, to attach the message to the medium. This is the weakest form of writing, as the message remains separate from the medium and can easily be erased or removed.
  • The second is to use ink on paper. In this case, the message is not as easily removed, as the message is more connected to the medium itself. However, the ink still remains on the surface of the paper, separate from the medium (the paper). It is the very contrast between the ink and the blank paper that allows you to understand the message.
  • The third is to engrave the message into the medium itself. As such, the message becomes part of the medium and cannot be erased.
  • However, there is a deeper form of writing, which is to bore the message completely through the medium, whereby the message becomes one with the medium itself.


This fourth level is how the luchos were written. The pasuk[36] says that the letters of the luchos were engraved through the stone and could miraculously be read both on the front and the back of the tablets. Chazal discuss the miraculous way in which letters such as the samech and mem sofit both had inner pieces that floated in the air, disconnected from any other part of the stone.


This is the deep message of the luchos. We must engrave their words onto our hearts, we must become one with the medium, we must become one with these mitzvos. We cannot simply perform the mitzvos, we must become the mitzvos. May we be inspired to fully embrace Matan Torah this year and merit to fulfil the directive of "Kasvem al luach libecha."


[1] Drush 18.

[2] We are now entrusted with the mission to find and rebuild our way back to that original ideal form of Torah. See chapter on Parshas Mishpatim for a more detailed explanation of this three step process: an ideal followed by a fall from that ideal, and the subsequent journey back to the original ideal.

[3] See chapter on Parshas Balak, section: “Bracha: From Oneness to Twoness,” for a more detailed explanation of this concept.

[4] See chapter on Parshas Vayishlach, section: “Avraham’s Revelation”.

[5] Shemos 20:15.

[6] See chapter on Parshas Vayigash. For more on this idea, see chapter on Parshas Devarim.

[7] As the Torah only counts by the thousands.

[8] The Aseres Hadibros begin with the words: “Anochi Hashem”.

[9] For more on the topic of oneness and twoness, see chapter on Parshas Balak.

[10] Shemos 24:12.

[11] Rav Sa’adyah Gaon describes at great length the breakdown of the mitzvos into their respective categories. It's also fascinating to note that there are 620 letters in the Aseres Hadibros, reflecting the idea that the 613 mitzvos and the shevah mitzvos bnei Noach are all contained within these ten root categories.

[12] Commonly referred to as Rav Tzadok Ha’kohen of Lublin.

[13] For more on the topic of emunah and faithfulness to Hashem, see chapter on Parshas V’Zos Ha’Bracha.

[14] For a more extensive explanation of avodah zarah, see below in this chapter, section: “Avodah Zarah and Adultery”. See also chapter on Parshas Ki Sisa, sections: “Idolatry” and “Serving Yourself.” 

[15] Shemos 20:2.

[16] Shemos 20:13.

[17] Mishneh Torah- Avodah Zarah- 1st chapter.

[18] Derech Hashem.

[19] For a more extensive explanation of avodah zarah, see chapter on Parshas Ki Sisa, section: “Serving Yourself.” 

[20] Shabbos 55b

[21] See Ibn Ezra, Vayikra 19:12.

[22] Additionally, both prohibitions reflect a disregard for hashgacha pratis (Divine providence) in this world. When one uses Hashem's name in vain or swears falsely, he is connecting Hashem's name to something that is not true. Only one who does not believe that Hashem knows what occurs in this world would dare associate His name with falsehood, as the consequences would otherwise be devastating. The same is true for kidnapping- only one who doesn’t believe in hashgacha pratis would dare violate such a horrible sin.

[23] Brachos 57a.

[24] This is the idea of neshama yeseirah

[25] See chapter on Parshas Tzav, section: “Speaking: Act of Connection”.

[26] For many years, I was bothered by the following question: If Shabbos represents the concept of seven, then should it not also be the seventh dibrah? But based on the ideas we have developed, the answer is beautiful: While horizontally, Shabbos is the fourth dibrah, when counting the dibros in the zig zag style that we have just done, with Anochi as the first dibrah and Lo Tirtzach as the second, Shabbos is the seventh dibrah.

[27] This is deeply connected to the concept of hakaras ha’tov. While literally translated as recognizing the good, hakaras ha’tov actually refers to one’s ability to recognize where things come from, sourcing things back to their original root. The mitzvah of Kibud Av v’Eim is essentially the paradigmatic mitzvah of hakaras ha’tov, recognizing where one’s existence comes from. For more on the concept of hakaras ha’tov, see chapter on Parshas Balak, section: “Bending the Knee.”

[28] According to the Chinuch and several other opinions, even thoughts of jealousy violate the prohibition of lo sachmod, even if one does not act on these thoughts (Sefer Ha’Chinuch, 38, 416). Even the Rambam (Hilchos Gezeilah 1:9), who suggests that one only violates the prohibition of loh sachmod if they act on their thoughts and force the owner to give or sell them that which they covet, still thinks that the act is simply a way to quantify the degree to which one had the illicit thoughts and desires of jealousy. In other words, the act is a retroactive revelation of how bad the jealousy truly was.

[29] This opinion, of course, assumes that one has full control over their thoughts, an axiom that in it of itself is fundamentally important. The focus of this question, however, is that, given the assumption that one has free will over their thoughts, how are we expected to overcome the urge of jealousy?

[30] And if it is, Hashem will make sure it finds its way to you.

[31] Accordingly, self-worth and confidence should not come from comparing oneself to others. The only comparison one should make is with one’s own past self. One should ask: “Am I better than the person I was yesterday?” or “How can I move forward and become a slightly better version of myself today?”.

[32] For more on the topic of Klal Yisrael’s unique oneness, see chapter on Parshas Beshalach.

[33] For example, one’s ear would never be jealous of their nose, as they are both parts of the same body. At root, they want what is best for the body, for the collective self. If we viewed ourselves as limbs of the body of Klal Yisrael, we would never be jealous of our fellow Jew.

[34] There are practical suggestions, including those that suggest that this custom is, in fact, a mistake, and is based on Christian artwork.

[35] Mishlei 7:3.

[36] Shemos 32:15.


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