Growing up in secular America, it was always a major event when they would broadcast The Ten Commandments on one of the major, primetime networks. Although I watched it on a television screen decades after it “played on the big screen, it still took my breath away – even as a child of the eighties, who grew up accustomed to Spielberg and Lucas-era spectacle.
My first go-around actually learning the Torah with Rashi’s commentary didn’t happen until my early twenties, and I was struck by how much of my own, personal experience of the Exodus was based more on the 10 Commandments than actual Jewish tradition. Comparing and contrasting the two has made for some excellent Shabbos table discussions and intellectual excercises over the years.
Here are just a fraction of the differences between the film and the traditional, text-based Jewish version of the Exodus:
3) Moses’ Oratory Skills: Unlike Charlton Heston, a classically-trained, masterful orator, the Torah says that Moshe had a severe speech impediment, and had to relay all of his messages through his brother, Aaron.
9) Seeing Thunder? The Torah tells us “All the people saw the thunder and lightning.” Visual thunder is so other-worldly, that even Cecile B. DeMille was not able to recreate such a phenomenon in his film. But it would have been cool if he tried!
10) Rays of Light: When Moses descended Mount Sinai, coming so close to the Almighty changed his face forever. It shone so bright, the Torah says he had to wear a veil from that point forward.
11) Dealing with the Golden Calf: While the film shows Moses shattering the Tablets in anger upon witnessing the Golden Calf, the Torah’s account has Moshe “tearing up the contract” of the first set of tablets, and returning to the mountaintop for another forty-days to negotiate repentance and atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.
Despite the movie’s nearly 4 hour length, there is a very good reason why we dedicate 2 entire nights a year to retell this story, despite what Cecil B. DeMille tried to do in one shot. The greatest part of the greatest story ever told, is the fact that we keep telling it, year after year, with our own imaginations to do the acting, directing and editing.