The Ten Commandments. We see them everywhere, the two tablets. On synagogue buildings and over the aron kodesh, the ark containing the Torah scrolls. In pictures of Moses across the history of biblical art. At courts of law. The tablets are so familiar we might stop noticing them.
And the words on the tablets. In a way, they are so obvious: Don't murder, steal, or commit adultery. The one time God chooses to speak to everyone, to be heard universally -- why are these the words God says? Doesn't everyone know this already? Hadn't God already given this as a tradition back in the time of Noah? Wouldn't any good philosopher already derived the same laws from reason, without recourse to revelation? Hadn't most societies figured out or imposed these laws to keep order, if not for higher reasons?
And yet these are the words that God chose to say in God's one and only moment of universal prophecy. We only have to look around us to see why. More than three thousand years after the revelation at Har Sinai, the words of the Ten Commandments are still revolutionary. Page through today's paper, and every column is about how the world is still not living by the words on the tablets. Murder, greed, deceit, disloyalty in all their forms are still here. They are tenacious, though not by any means the norm. But against such tenacity, against centuries that still tolerate murder and stealing and betrayal, the world needs God's voice. The booming voice from the mountain. The teaching voice, as the midrash describes it, speaking to every person in the way he or she needs to hear it.
That's the second tablet. The first tablet also makes a claim. I am Adonai your God, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, the house of slaves. What does this have to do with murdering and stealing? I think part of the message of the first tablet is this: I know -- says God -- what a world of idolatry and murder and greed looks like. You know it too. And I give you My word that the world does not have to be this way. But building and preserving a moral world requires you not to forget Egypt, and not to forget that you are humans. You are not gods, and no one who rules over you will ever be a god.
This is the command against idolatry, and also the mandate to observe Shabbat -- a day of limitation, and a day of imaginging the world in its perfect state.
I don't look at today's world and see mainly lawlessness. The Ten Commandments are not a lonely voice in the wilderness. But we are not finished hearing them. In Exodus 19:1, the Torah says not "on that day they came to Mt. Sinai" but "on this day", and the midrash says: This day, whichever day you read or hear these words, is like the very day they were first announced. As we stand up this Shabbat, and hear those words again chanted from the Torah, we can still hear them as if they are new. As if they are as radical as they have ever been. They are words that will never be quite obvious, and never be too old.