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D’var Torah for Shavuot and Torture Awareness Month

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There is an old New Yorker cartoon in which Moses comes down from Sinai with the two tablets and he is confronted with the tableau of debauchery which is the worship of the Golden Calf. Speaking to a group of Israelites he adamantly says: “Well, actually, it is written in stone.”

The asseret hadevarim, the ten sayings, which are carved into those stones which Moses brought down from Sinai have gained a great religious and mythical weight. This is an interesting phenomenon since in Judaism, of course, the commandments and prohibitions which are engraved in the two tablets are no more nor less important than the plethora of other commandments not engraved. However, the foundational status of the ten sayings, the decalogue, has remained intact.

The commandments are usually thought of as divided into two groups—five on the right and five on the left. The division is not an easy one to categorize. All the sayings on the left are prohibitions on interpersonal activity. However, the sayings on the right are a mixed bag. There are prohibitions against idolatry and taking God’s name in vain. There are commandments to keep the Sabbath and respect one’s parents. While most of the sayings on this side seem to be between a person and God, what of respecting one’s parents? And then, what of the opening line? “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” What is this? Is this a “commandment”? Is this an introductory statement? A proem (to use the technical language of the Biblicists)?

I would like to suggest that this is an introductory formula which, at the same time demands that it be manifested in our lives. Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great Hassidic master of the early eighteenth century, taught that the reason that commandments were given at Sinai was so that the revelation would have vessels in which to keep it, otherwise it would be transient, ineffable, transitory—almost the hevel or breath of Ecclesiastes, which would dissipate, leaving no trace. It is the commandments that concretize the revelation, that manifest the presence of God in the world.

What is the content of this introduction? God took Israel out of slavery, out of the state of being a slave. What is that state? It is a state in which one’s tzlelem elohim is erased. The corresponding prohibition to this opening saying (as we think of the two tablets in parallel) is: “Do not murder.” Slaves are those who can be killed with impunity since their essential humanity, which is their Divine image is not recognized. God created the first Adam in the image of God and then after the flood, God stresses this connection with murder saying: “He who sheds human blood/ by humans his blood shall be shed/ for in the image of God/ He made humankind.” The human who is created in the image of God is the one whose murder needs be avenged and murdering a human is evil because it is destroying the image of God in that person.

The manner in which we manifest the fact of God’s delivering Israel from slavery into a state in which Israel’s Divine image is recognized, is by not destroying the Divine image in another person. The Torah, in Deuteronomy, prohibits leaving the corpse of one who is executed hanging overnight because it portrays, according to the midrash, the destruction of the Divine image.

Murder is only one way that a person’s divine image is destroyed, and perhaps it is not the worst way.

When one human being tortures another, the point of the torture is to destroy the humanity, the Divine image of the person being tortured. The “successful” application of torture irrevocably changes a person’s sense of self to the extent that pain is the central experience of their existence. There is no longer will, discernment, autonomy, creativity. There is only pain and the overwhelming desire to stop the pain. Every person has a threshold beyond which they are no longer recognizable as the person they were prior to the torture. This is the moment of the destruction of a person’s tzelem elohim, and it is the reason that torture needs to be absolutely forbidden. Beyond the arguments that torture is not reliable (since torture victims will say anything to stop the pain) or whether or not there really might ever be an actual “ticking time bomb” situation, beyond all this is the prohibition against destroying a person’s tzelem elohim. This is what we affirm when we read the decalogue. We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity, that every person is made in the image of God and that it is absolutely forbidden for another person to demean and destroy that image of God.


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