“The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke,
God answered him in thunder. “ (Exodus 19:19)
Parashat Yitro (named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, a Midianite priest) contains two remarkable events: the creation of the Israelite judicial system and the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The establishment of the judiciary is noteworthy because it is proposed by an outsider (Yitro), is secular (it does not include priests), and bypasses the established power structure of the Israelite community (the “elders” are not mentioned). The revelation at Mt. Sinai is noteworthy because it establishes the brit, God’s covenant, with the Israelite people.
Aseret hadibrot, (the Ten Commandments, or more accurately translated, the Ten Utterances) are unique in ancient covenant codes for three reasons. First, they establish a brit between an entire people and God. Second, they set the brit within a narrative context. Finally, they regulate individual behavior and human relationships.
Parsing aseret hadibrot is rabbinic sport; the tradition goes back centuries. Some rabbis divide them into obligations bein adam lamakom (between humans and God) and bein adam l’chaveiro (human to human). Others divide them between the “dos” and the “don’ts.” Still others divide between those utterances that are particular to the Jewish people (Remember Shabbat), and those that are universal (Do not murder). And this doesn’t even address the arguments over how to divide the thirteen verses into ten distinct utterances!
Aseret hadibrot begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God.” (Ex. 20:2) This makes sense, because the purpose of the revelation is to establish the brit with God. But aseret hadibrot end with the words, “You shall not covet … or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex. 20:14) Ultimately, the brit rests upon the way we live together as humans.