According to the Torah, when God brought the Israelites to Mount Sinai, they heard God's voice directly, as a group, for the one and only time in history. And God said….
"Do not steal." But surely people already knew that! "Do not murder." Did the people really need God's voice to get them to believe that?
We think of these things as the minimum, not the maximum. A world where people don't harm each other, don't betray each other or their promises, don't go after what belongs to someone else -- this should be the starting point, the line between savages and human beings, no? If God was intent on cultivating Israel as a nation with a special charge, why spend half the Ten Commandments on the lowest common denominator?
The midrash, our interpretive tradition, wonders the same thing. Here is one of the answers we find there: God indeed had big plans for us, and a short time to get us on board with the mission. So God did what only God can do: woo us over to the most complicated and demanding project while getting us to feel that the whole thing is actually quite simple.
When the people first heard the Ten Commandments, they might have thought: We can do that. There are a couple of commands that are stretches, but on the whole this won't be too hard.
But it turns out that "do not steal" means a lot more than not holding up a bank. The midrash says that while the people were nodding their heads, each one got a visit from an angel who patiently gave an individual tutorial on the complexities of the command he or she was hearing and feeling comfortable with. Stealing, the angel would say, includes not misleading someone so that they do something for you that you don't deserve. Stealing, the angel would add, includes withholding the part of your earnings and your property that actually don't belong to you, but to people in need or to the community for its needs.
The genius of the Torah is that "do not steal" is only part of the "do not steal" of the Ten Commandments. The simple message leads you to the complicated one. The complicated one is what we have to do to redeem the world.
Tonight begins Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the anniversary of the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah. On this holy day, try to hear the Ten Commandments as if they were new. On their simplest level, and on deeper levels. As the word of the God Who became known to us by redeeming us from slavery and false gods. As the teaching of the God Whose very name and whose Shabbat are portals, invitations to become God's partners in this world.
We gather tonight at 7:00 PM for services, and to honor the teaching and learning of Torah in our community. After services and Oneg, we have the traditional late night Shavuot Torah study session as long as people will stay. Tomorrow morning, our Torah reading is the Ten Commandments.
Chag Sameach -- May you have a holy day of deepest joy,