This week's Torah Reading:
: Exodus 18: 1 - 20:23
begins with Moses consulting his father-in-law
(Jethro) on how best to administer justice. Jethro suggests that Moses share some of his burden by having minor decisions made by others, while Moses himself will rule only on very difficult matters. Moses accepts Jethro's suggestion, after which Jethro returns to his own land.
The Torah then recounts the preparations the people undertook as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God says to the people, through Moses, "...All the earth is mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests (
) and a holy nation." (Ex 19:5 - 6). For three days the people prepared themselves for this unique moment in history. "On the third day, as morning was dawning, there was thunder and lightening...and the people in the camp trembled." (Ex 19:16). Moses went up to the mountain to receive the revelation, which is reported to us in the form of the Ten Commandments.
What are the consequences for violating the Ten Commandments? Prison? Physical punishment? The death penalty? The answer is, none of the Ten Commandments specify what the consequences will be! Only later on in the Torah, will it specify what the punishment for violating each of the commandments, but here the text is silent. Why is that?
It seems to me that there are two reasons why we refrain from doing something wrong. The first is that we are concerned with getting caught and the punishment it might bring. This reflects the most base aspect of our instincts. For some, if they would not get caught "breaking the law", they wouldn't refrain from doing so. People talk on their cell phones in their cars, cheat on their taxes, are unfaithful to their partners, steal from their place of employment, often because they are fairly certain (or certainly hope) they won't get caught.
Their is however a second reason people refrain from doing wrong, one which is on a much higher plane. We refrain from doing something wrong...simply because it is wrong. We know in our hearts (or if you prefer, in our kishkes) that the real motivation for keeping laws and commandments are because it's the right thing to do. Indeed when we do the right thing, we feel better about who we are and what we are doing. In acting correctly, we know we are doing what God wants us to do, not because we are concerned with a punishment if we don't, but because it's what we should be doing.
Perhaps that's exactly why the Ten Commandments do not need to specify the consequences for not following them. The Torah teaches us that they were revealed to us "on Mt. Sinai". What may well have been revealed is that the true motivation for keeping the Ten Commandments is to be a good person and lead a righteous life. That is certainly something God would want us to understand, and be motivated to do for the right reason.