"The Big Ten"
The phrase, “The Big Ten” is one of the most interesting examples of an American figure of speech whose dual references can be amusing, confusing or both, as I discovered one morning after worship at my synagogue. I had just finished delivering a sermon about “The Big Ten,” my allusion to the biblical Ten Commandments that seemed obvious enough to me, when one of the former presidents of our community approached me.
“Rabbi, congratulations!”, he began. “Very interesting sermon you delivered! It was a well-done piece on the Ten Commandments… but I kept waiting for you to explain its connection with college football.”
A slightly anxious sweat formed on my back. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Did you not know that ‘the Big Ten’ refers to the most prestigious collegiate football conference in American sports, the gold standard of Division I athletics?”
I didn’t know that, and frankly, I don’t care, as football doesn’t interest me. Still, many other Americans do care, and I suspect that still many more, religious football fans particularly, blur the lines of meaning between references to scripture and scrimmage line all the time. Such is the pliability of language in different contexts, a pliability that can make the Bible’s Big Ten accessible to everyone.
The conceptual frame enveloping The Ten Commandments is a constant, ongoing tension between the first rule, “I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egyptian slavery to be your new Master,” and the last rule, “Do not covet that which is your neighbor’s.” We are challenged every day to choose between placing God and placing our covetous desires at the center of our existence. The eight rules sandwiched between these two framing statements list the concrete ways in which we discipline ourselves to make God that center, to clarify that God is the Boss, not us.
That clarity can be a millstone around the necks of atheists and agnostics who want to adhere to these rules without God as a motivating force. Even believers sometimes have difficulty putting God at the center of them, for they worry that if God could one day be proved to not exist, does this mean would we be allowed to violate them?
I firmly believe in and have a relationship with God. However, if you proved to me tomorrow that God doesn’t exist, I don’t think I would violate the Big Ten and here is why. Let’s imagine coming to the Ten Commandments seeking a vision of a better society, yet with no formal faith or belief in God. We’d need to look no further for guidance than their first and last phrases, which we could interpret by using that pliability of language that I mentioned.
In its immediate context, the first phrase of the Ten Commandments, “I am”, announces God as the Redeemer from slavery. Taken radically out of context, that phrase could refer not to God, but to the individual human being, each one of us as a precious singularity, yet at times alone and isolated, too invested in the world revolving around us. “I am” is given its darkest expression elsewhere in the Bible by the biblical character, Cain, who spurns all responsibility for his murdered brother, Abel, when he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In its immediate context, the last phrase of the Ten Commandments “your neighbor”, refers to your neighbor’s household which you’re forbidden from coveting. Once again, taken radically out of context, “your neighbor” can refer simply to any person in front of you at any time in any place, a simple yet forceful reminder that the world does not revolve around us.. “Your neighbor” is given its best expression elsewhere in the Bible by the golden rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Seen this way, “I am” and “your neighbor” are far more than the first and last phrases of the biblical Big Ten. Reinterpreted, they present a new, meaningful frame for thinking about the dynamic tension between self and other, the individual and the community, fulfilling personal needs and caring for one’s fellow human beings. Throw this dynamic out of balance one way and society descends into the ruthlessness of every person for him or herself. Throw it out of balance the other way and the individual is obliterated by the collective, be it a family, a community, a populist mob, or the state. In balance, this dynamic becomes a fragile but elegant dance of relationships that promote human dignity and well-being at every level. This frame calls all of us, -believers and atheists alike – to pursue that balance for everyone’s sake.
The Ten Commandments have resisted the wear and tear of time and cultural change because they’re broad enough to address the basic human need for relationships and communities informed by justice, mercy, and good boundaries, with or without God. These first and last phrases of the Ten Commandments, and all the words between them, still compel us to think deeply about what human existence often is and to embrace courageously a vision of what it could be.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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