The locomotive was making its first appearance in a little town of old. No one had ever seen a horseless carriage before. Every one of the townspeople gathered at the new station to witness history in the making. The gun was fired and with a flourish of huffing and puffing the locomotive roared out of the station. Well… the engine that is. Unfortunately, the shlemiel whose job it was to hitch the other cars to the engine had forgotten to do so, and the long train of carriages were left behind in a trail of smoke.
Sometimes, the most meticulously laid plans—a business strategy, a football game plan, or even (perish the thought), a synagogue resolution made on Yom Kippur—fail to come to fruition—all because we neglected to hitch the engine to the train…
The introduction to the Ten Commandments we will read in this week’s Parshah is, And G‑d spoke all these words, to say… In Hebrew, leimor. Now, when the Torah uses the word leimor, “to say,” it is usually because G‑d is telling Moses something important which Moses in turn should pass on and tell the Children of Israel. So the word leimor makes perfect sense. He said it to him to say it to them. But here we have a problem. You see, every Jew was present at Sinai, and according to the mystics, that includes even the unborn souls of future generations. So there was no need for Moses to pass on anything to anyone. All the Jews heard the Ten Commandments directly from G‑d. So why the word leimor? To say to whom?
Rabbi DovBer, the great Maggid of Mezeritch, explained that here the word leimor means to speak to you. That these words should not remain mere words, but should resonate and say something meaningful to you personally. They should be said and heard so that they continue to reverberate forever after in your minds, heart and deeds. The Ten Commandments must not remain an abstract idea, an unhitched engine, a nice philosophy or an interesting cultural practice – something of no more significance to yourself than the rituals of ancient Incas of Peru. The Ten Commandments must be relevant enough to make a difference in our lives; otherwise, whom did G‑d say them to and whatever for?
The Talmud describes a thief who prays to G‑d for success before breaking in to commit a burglary. The epitome of hypocrisy—G‑d told you, “You shall not steal,” and you have the audacity to ask Him to help you succeed in defying His wishes? This has got to be the ultimate chutzpah! How do we get a handle on this Talmudic thief’s hypocrisy? The answer is that this thief, too, is a believer, but his faith is superficial and doesn’t permeate his being sufficiently to influence his behavior. Deep down he has faith but he remains a religious goniff!
They tell the story of a rabbi who was in his study when in walked Berl, the town pickpocket. “Rabbi, I was walking down the street and found this wallet lying on the ground. I know that to return a lost article is a mitzvah of the Torah, so I brought it in. Perhaps you can make an announcement in Shul and find the rightful owner.” The rabbi sees there is a fair amount of cash in the wallet. He is so inspired at Berl’s change of heart that he embraces him and congratulates him on his reformation. Later, the rabbi notices that the gold watch he had in his jacket pocket is missing. He calls Berl and asks him if perchance he may have inadvertently taken his watch. Berl confesses. “I don’t understand you Berl. You find a wallet full of cash in the street and you return it, and then you go and steal my gold watch?
Berl answers, “Rabbi, a mitzvah is a mitzvah, but business is business.”
We all believe and we all want to do mitzvahs, big and small. The trick is to translate our inner piety into outer practice. What does my faith do for me? Does it speak to me? How does it transform my behavior, my life? Does it make any tangible difference in my everyday behavior? The Torah must not remain a theory on the drawing board. The Ten Commandments do indeed speak to us. The question is, are we listening?