The Torah in Parashat Yitro (20:1-14) tells of God’s pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, which he later engraved on the two stone tablets which He gave to Moshe as a testament of His covenant with Benei Yisrael (Devarim 9:10). The Ten Commandments appear also later in the Torah – in Moshe’s recounting of the event of the Revelation at Sinai, during his lengthy series of addresses to the nation before his death in Sefer Devarim (5:6-18). As many have observed, there exist a number of differences between the two texts of the Ten Commandments. Most famously, the command to observe Shabbat is formulated here in Parashat Yitro as, “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat” – “Remember the day of Shabbat,” whereas in Sefer Devarim it is formulated, “Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat” – “Guard the day of Shabbat.”
Some, such as Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-arokh, 20:1), explain that the text in Parashat Yitro is the text which God engraved on the tablets, but Moshe, when reiterating the commandments to Benei Yisrael in Sefer Devarim, added commentary. This accounts for the minor discrepancies between the two texts. Ibn Ezra suggests proving this theory from the fact that twice in the text of the Ten Commandments in Sefer Devarim (5:12,16), we find the expression, “as the Lord your God has commanded you.” This would seem to indicate that this text is not a direct citation of God’s pronouncements, but rather Moshe’s presentation of the commands. It is thus reasonable to attribute the discrepancies between the two texts to Moshe’s altering the text in reviewing them for the people forty years later.
Another theory is that the two texts refer to the two occasions when the commandments were engraved on stone tablets. The original stone tablets upon which God engraved the Ten Commandments were shattered by Moshe when he came down from the mountain and saw Benei Yisrael worshipping the golden calf. After Moshe’s pleas on the people’s behalf, God agreed to renew His covenant with the people, and He proceeded to engrave the commandments on a new set of tablets. Conceivably, then, the text of the Ten Commandments in Parashat Yitro is the text written on the original set of tablets, whereas the text that Moshe presented to the people in Sefer Devarim is that which God engraved on the second, permanent set of tablets.
This approach is taken by the Gemara’s in Masekhet Bava Kama (54b-55a), in explaining one of the subtler discrepancies between the two texts. In the version of the command to respect parents that appears in Sefer Devarim, the phrase “u-lema’an yiytav lakh” (“so that you will benefit”) is added, emphasizing the reward for fulfilling this command (Devarim 5:16). This phrase marks the only instance of the word “tov” in the text of the Ten Commandments, and it does not appear in the first version of the Ten Commandments, in Parashat Yitro. The Gemara brings the story of an Amora who found it noteworthy that the word “tov” (“good,” or “goodness”) appears nowhere in the original text of the Ten Commandments, and the explanation given is, “because they [the tablets] would in the end be destroyed.” The underlying assumption of this answer is that the text in Parashat Yitro was the text engraved on the first set of tablets, which were eventually shattered, whereas the text in Sefer Devarim is the text engraved on the second tablets. As God knew that the first tablets were destined to be shattered, He intentionally omitted the word “tov,” because had this word been included, then when the tablets were shattered, this would have given the impression that, in the Gemara’s words, “paseka tova mi-Yisrael” – “goodness has ceased from Israel.” The destruction of the word “tov” in the tablets may have implied that any hope for “goodness” has been destroyed.
What might be the significance of this concept – that the first tablets could not include the word “tov,” to avoid giving the impression after they were shattered that Benei Yisrael would never again experience “goodness”?
The sin of the golden calf, where Benei Yisrael worshipped a foreign deity just several weeks after the Revelation, marks the epitome of sin and failure, and was compared by the Sages to a bride who betrayed her groom right under her wedding canopy (Gittin 36b). The Gemara here perhaps seeks to teach that even after the greatest failure, we must never think for a moment that “paseka tova,” we will never again be worthy of God’s grace and goodness. Even after the gravest of all sins, when God proclaimed His desire to annihilate the entire nation, “goodness” was still attainable. The Gemara here urges us to remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of failure, emphasizing that even after the sin of the golden calf, the prospects for “tova” were not lost. We must trust in our ability to recover and to improve, and in God’s willingness to continue bestowing His “goodness” upon us even after failure, as long as we consistently and genuinely seek to grow.