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The Ten Commandments: Israel’s Shared Purpose

  • The Ten Commandments: Israel’s Shared Purpose

    Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8)

D'var Torah

As Moses is about to climb Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Israelites gather at the base of the mountain and affirm their commitment to fulfilling God’s commandments. Interestingly enough, they have not yet heard what those commandments will be! Nevertheless, they make a commitment to obey God’s word: “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8).

I like to think of the Ten Commandments as Ancient Israel’s mission statement. God and Moses both knew that the Children of Israel needed a document that stated the purpose of the people and pointed them toward their destiny. It had to be a statement broad enough to encompass a variety of interpretations, yet compelling
enough to be shared by everyone. The variety of opinions concerning the Ten Commandments today testifies to the sheer power and success of this most influential document. The Ten Commandments formed the Israelite people?a disparate people with competing agendas?into a unified nation with a shared purpose.

Having a shared purpose defines community. Whether we are talking about a family, a business, or even a sports team, we need to start with a definite goal in mind. A family goal might be to have every child in the family graduate from college; a business goal might be to double last year’s sales revenue; a sports team’s goal, of course, is to win a championship trophy. People who share our goals enter our communities (the analogy also works in the context of marriage); if they have other goals, they will leave our communities and go somewhere else.

At Mount Sinai the Israelites have a shared purpose: to learn and to do God’s will. They are preparing themselves for the coming Revelation and let it be known that they are willing and eager to form a community of like-minded believers at Mount Sinai. Later of course, that shared purpose fades away. But for now, in Parashat Yitro, shared purpose is everything. They are eager to enter into this b’rit—this strange new covenant with God. The Israelites are not too sure what this commitment entails, but they certainly are ready to learn. Moses ascends the mountain as Israel’s emissary to the Divine; he becomes the conduit through which the Israelites come to know God’s will. And the Israelites answer the challenge as one: the entirety of that which God commands, Israel will do. Assent precedes knowledge, a true statement of faith.

How do we bring our people to a shared vision when all we see are competing agendas? This is the great challenge. A shared vision is essential before proceeding with a mission statement. If we cannot answer the simple question, “What do we stand for?” we will stand for nothing and, eventually, be reduced to nothing. This is true of a religious institution, a corporation, a sports team, or even a family.

A mission statement combines and formalizes the nuanced variations of what each individual sees as the mission of the organization and combines those personal ideas into a single coherent and mutually acceptable document. That is why the Israelites can agree to a mission statement, the Ten Commandments, even before they hear them. The basic concepts of obedience and service before God have already taken root among the people. The Ten Commandments are only the formalization of what is already implicit?service to God. In a way, the details are unimportant; the sense of common purpose is paramount and, through the words, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8), is made explicit.

Only with a sense of shared purpose can the disparate Israelites become one nation. The anticipation of receiving the Ten Commandments melds them into one people; yet this Revelation can never happen unless the Israelites share the common purpose of service to God. If they were not united in this way, they would not merit this Revelation.

This is the lesson that we must remember: without a shared purpose, none of our endeavors, from developing mission statements to moving our organizations forward to leaving our legacy, can occur. Do you have a vision that you have shared with others? If not, why not? And when will you start to work toward that vision?

By the Way

[Rabbi Parr writes: Jack Canfield, the cocreator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, published a book entitled The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. In it, he writes about the discernment and fulfillment of our deepest thoughts and dreams?and gives the reader a way to achieve them. Regarding the question of shared mission and vision, he writes the following:]

You’ll find that when you share your vision, some people will want to help you make it happen. Others will introduce you to friends and resources that can help you. You’ll also find that each time that you share your vision, it becomes clearer and feels more real and attainable. And most importantly, every time you share your vision, you strengthen your own subconscious belief that you can achieve it. (Jack Canfield, The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005], p. 34)

[Rabbi Parr continues: Obviously, Canfield could have had Moses in mind! Moses was superb at bringing his vision to a people and enticing them to share it with him. When we articulate and then share our vision, we will find a unity of purpose and satisfaction in life, if only because everyone around us is participating in the unfolding of our dreams.]

Your Guide

  1. When you sit with your family, do you share your vision for family growth with them? Does your vision mesh with the vision of your spouse or partner, your children, your parents? Do they share this vision with you?

  2. As a member of a synagogue, can you quote your congregation’s mission statement? Do you agree with it? Does your synagogue have a mission statement? If not, can you help create one?

  3. When in your life experiences has assent preceded knowledge? When was the last time that you acted on faith, knowing that the action was risky, but supportive of your vision and likely to further your personal, professional, and spiritual goals?

Rabbi Jordan Parr is spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano, Texas.

2/18/2006
Reference Materials: 

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710–713; Revised Edition, pp. 507–509