Yitro: A Perfect Ten

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In the Western world, the number ten represents perfection. Not surprisingly, this concept seems to be rooted in our biblical tradition. “In ten utterances, the world was created (Avot 5:1)." And what a world it was! “And G-d saw all that He did, and it was very good”. Yet instead of “working and guarding” this world as we were commanded (Breisheet 2:15), ten generations later “[There are] ten generations from Adam to Noach”], man had so corrupted G-d's creation that He was forced to create the world anew. The second set of ten generations culminated in Avraham, [“there are] ten generations from Noach to Avraham”; and Avraham became who he was because he “was tested in ten tests and he stood in [grew from] all of them”. And on the list goes.

The major turning points in our history are connected with the number ten. Creation, Avraham, the ten plagues, the ten miracles done for our fathers in the Temple. Yet if ten represents perfection, then it must also be able to represent its opposite.  There is no possibility of good without evil, nor of evil without good. It was ten brothers who sold Yosef, ten spies who saw no hope of conquering Israel, ten ways the Jewish people tested G-d in the desert and ten tribes lost to Jewish history.

Ten is the number by which the destiny of the Jewish people is determined. Thus, the number ten turns private individuals into a collective, whether as a quorum for prayer or to fulfill the mitzvah to publicly sanctify the name of G-d.

No list of ten would be complete without the most important and historic of tens, the aseret hadibrot, the "Ten Commandments". Interestingly, when one examines both the creation story and the Ten Commandments, the number ten seems a little forced. The Talmud queries the notion that there were “ten utterances of creation”, noting that the word vayomer—“and He said”—appears only nine times in the Creation narrative. The Talmud preserves the number ten by asserting that the opening word of the Bible, breisheet, is also to be considered a divine utterance.

More difficult to comprehend is the “Ten Commandments”, as breaking them down into ten units is not as simple as we may have been taught in nursery school. It surely is not Ten Commandments. For starters, the commentaries debate as to whether the first of the commandments, “I am the Lord, your G-d” is a command at all, reading as it does like an introductory statement and prerequisite to the entire concept of commandments. Furthermore, according to the count of the Rambam, there are 14 mitzvot in the “Ten” Commandments. The command of Shabbat, for example, has two mitzvot—the obligation to make Kiddush—derived from the word zachor, and the prohibition of work derived from the phrase “lo tasu melacha”. Neither can the number ten be referring to p’sukim, verses, as the "Ten Commandments" are recorded in thirteen verses.

It is only because of three passing references later on in the Torah to the “aseret hadevarim” (Shemot 34:28, Devarim 4:13 and 10:4)given by G-d at Sinai that we even associate the number ten with the revelation at Sinai. Examining the text of the Ten Commandments, the only notion of ten would be the empty spaces, parsha breaks, that appear throughout the Torah, which divide the dibrot into ten paragraphs. Yet, the division into ten paragraphs does not divide the text into the Ten Commandments as we “know” them. The first two “commands” form one unit, and the “last” command, lo tachmod, the prohibition of jealousy, is divided into two separate paragraphs: the first refers to one's home, and the second to “one’s wife, slave, ox, donkey and all that your neighbour has”.

As our Sages note, the creation of the physical world was conditional on the development of the spiritual world, on the revelation at Sinai. The first word of the Torah, Breisheet, serves as the introduction and basis for the creation story that follows. Similarly, “I am the Lord, your G-d, who took you out of Egypt” is the introduction and basis of the commands that follow.

The last, and most difficult, of the commandments, the one forbidding jealousy, seems to parallel the last of the ten utterances. “And G-d said, ‘Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit…shall be for you to eat” (Breisheet 1:29). The root of jealousy is an inability to accept that G-d has chosen others to have what you might want for yourself. What we have, and more importantly what others have, was given to each of us by G-d. We may “eat” only that which is rightfully ours. Once we internalize that, there can be no displays of jealousy.

The Ten Commandments begin with the assertion of divine providence over the world at large. That is the easy part. The harder part for us is to accept divine providence over our personal belongings, preventing us from usurping that which belongs to others. If we can manage to do so, we will have scored a perfect ten.