In the Second Person
This week we read Parashat Yitro with the Ten Commandments at the center.
There are two distinctive things in the Ten Commandments if compared to the laws of other peoples. The first is that in the Ten Commandments, the commandments are "categorical" with no punishment cited. "Thou shalt not steal"' for example is a categorical commandment, unequivocal and undebatable.
I will now think as a parent.
I can explain to my daughters why it's worthwhile to go to bed early. And although I am fully aware in advance that my explanations won't convince them, I can give my reasons and I can be flexible.
However, there are times when an order is unequivocal and there is no room for "negotiations". If they try to put a needle into an electric socket, I can explain the reasons that this is forbidden but I can never be flexible…
In other codexes of law, for example the laws of Hammurabi in the 8th century B.C.E., there is no such thing, punishment plays a central role in the system and it makes no difference if it is the death penalty or any other physical punishment.
The main point is that it is the punishment that explains the command. While in the "Ten Commandments", the command is absolute.
The second point that differentiates the "Ten Commandments" from other legal systems is the phraseology. The "Ten Commandments" are phrased in the second person and that is a relevant and revolutionary point. In the same way that we relate to G-d in the second person (in saying the blessings we say "Blessed art Thou O Lord our G-d" and not "Blessed is He") thus the Ten Commandments are also phrased in the second person and say "Thou shalt not steal" in the second person. The Ten Commandments have been given such an honored place in Judaism because they are a kind of an intimate conversation, face to face between The Holy One and his people.
We are not speaking here about an impersonal form of address where the responsibility for implementation falls on everyone in general but on a form of address in the second person that is addressed to each and every individual in the Jewish people.
The style shows us that the laws apply to everyone – the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, on our neighbor but primarily on myself…
It is always easier to think that the sinner is the one on the other side of the street.