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:
1) We Are Family In both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, Moshe does not grow up knowing his birth family and only later discovers he was, in fact, a Hebrew. In the Torah account of the story, although Moshe was taken from the Nile by Batya and lived in Pharoah’s house, he continued to maintain a relationship with his birth family – even nursing from his birth mother. Which segues nicely to our next difference:
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.
7) Where is Nachshon?!: The Midrash goes into great detail about the Splitting of the Sea, particularly the story of Nachshon the son of Aminadav – who followed Moshe’s orders and walked into the sea until the waters covered his nostrils. Only then, following the footsoldier’s self-sacrifice, did the sea finally split – into 12 COLUMNS!!! Bummer that hasn’t made that into any film of the story (yet).
8) Where Were The Flowers? The midrash tells us that the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Jews awaited receiving the Torah, was carpeted with greenery and fragrant flowers.
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.