Shalom Schwartz

Project Aseret HaDibrot

What is the Purpose of The Ten Commandments?

"He announced to you His covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He wrote them on two stone tablets".  (Devarim 4:13)
Aseret HaDibrot, The Ten Commandments: our founding mandate.

They are regarded universally as the guiding principles for moral and ethical individuals and societies.
But how do we understand their purpose for us as Am Yisrael? Since every word, every letter, of the Torah is considered holy and essential, why are these Dibrot singled out, inscribed on stone tablets and put alongside the Sefer Torah in the Holy of Holies in the Temple? This unique title, place and emphasis indicate a special purpose that they serve. What is that role and what significance does it have for us today? 

It has been said[i]that today Am Yisrael is like a messenger who got hit on the head. When he woke up he didn’t remember who sent him, to whom he was sent, the content of the message, or even that he was a messenger at all. What exactly is our shlichut and how can we rectify this situation?
I deeply believe that reviving our awareness of the purpose of the Aseret HaDibrot can awaken us from this spiritual amnesia.
Let’s look back to the introduction to the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot at Mt. Sinai in Shemot (19: 5-6).
"And now, if you will listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, you will be treasured from all the nations, for all the earth is Mine".
What does My voice refer to here? The one and only time all of Am Yisrael heard G-d’s voice was the Aseret HaDibrot[ii]. As this week’s parsha (VeEtchanan) stresses, “G-d spoke these words to the entire assembly…” Devarim (5:19).
And keep My covenant:
The Aseret HaDibrot in our parsha are referred to as “His covenant” (Devarim 4:13) and again in next week’s parsha (Ekev) as in “the tablets of the covenant” (Devarim 9:11), implying that they are an essential component of the fulfillment our national covenantal purpose.
You will be treasured to Me from all the nations, for all the earth is Mine:
All of the earth, all of humanity, is G-d’s creation. If Am Yisrael listens to His voice, as heard in the words and meaning of the Aseret HaDibrot, and keeps the covenant, the national mission, that will be the basis for a treasured (segula) relationship with G-d.
And you will become, for Me, a mamlechet kohanim (kingdom of spiritual leaders) and a holy nation….
Build on this foundation and you will become a nation of spiritual leaders. The root of the word kohen is to serve. The kohanim are spiritual leaders of Am Yisrael; they serve Am Yisrael and are called upon to be a source of blessing to the people. Am Yisrael, as a Mamlechet Kohanim, a “kingdom of kohanim”, are to serve humanity as spiritual leaders and thereby fulfilling the covenant made with Avraham [iii]to be a 'father to all the nations' (Bereishit 17:4) and a source of blessing to all the families of the earth.(Bereishit 12:3)
How do we now understand the purpose of the Aseret HaDibrot?
And what difference does this make in our personal lives, for all Am Yisrael and the world?
The relationship we entered into is no less than a partnership with God to fulfill the purpose of creation. Our national calling is to be a nation of spiritual leaders, a light unto the nations.
At this founding moment of our undertaking of that mission, we are given the foundation necessary to fulfill it.
Firstly, in order to fulfill the Torah we must have the relationship to the covenant clear. We must realize that we have a national purpose and stay aligned with it. That’s why the tablets of the covenant were kept in the Holy of Holies.- the geographical and spiritual focal point of Am Yisrael. That’s why we find them at the front of so many synagogues.
They are our anchor and compass to stay aligned with our purpose.
And secondly, the Aseret HaDibrot serve as the core values for fulfilling our mission: They are described both as encapsulating the essence of the Torah[iv] and as containing all 613 mitzvoth[v].
They give us the foundation of character and core values enabling the fullness of Torah to shine its light through us.
The Mechilta teaches that before the Dibrot were inscribed on the Tablets, they were inscribed on the souls of Am Yisrael! What does it mean that they were engraved on our hearts?
They are our spiritual DNA, ensuring that we can fulfill our purpose.

Learning— and living —the Aseret HaDibrot as our core values can bring forth the inner light of every Jew, revealing that the voice of G-d and our covenant is embedded in every Jewish heart and soul.

[i] Elie Wiesel
[ii] See  וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵליָ, Rav Moshe Eisenman pg.23 citing  Ohr HaChaim on Bamidbar 14;22.
[iii] see Ramban on Shmot (19:5)
[iv] Many sources speak about this. For example, see Rambam Perush HaMishna Tamid (5:1)
[v] Rashi on Shmot (24: 12)