By coincidence, I was in Jerusalem during President Trump’s visit, where he was almost uniformly welcomed in a city celebrating 50 years since the hard-fought reuniting of Israel’s ancient capital in the Six-Day War of June 1967.
The presidential event that towered over all others during Trump roughly 30 hours In Israel was his visit to the Western Wall, what the Israelis call the Kotel, constructed by Herod the Great, 30–1 BCE.
It was not just that the president was the first sitting U.S. head of state to visit the Kotel.
It was not just that Trump requested to pray at the wall alone with his family, without an official delegation in attendance to create the atmosphere of state policy.
It was not just that the Kotel and the Herodian Temple Mount above it—site of the Second Temple as well as of the Blue Mosque and the Al Aqsa Mosque—are outside of Israel’s original U.N.-mandated boundaries and therefore on the other side of the much-debated 1967 borders.
It was that, most critically, by physically touching the wall, President Trump, without need to speak aloud, connected himself to the salvation history of the Hebrews, who escaped servitude in Egypt and were delivered into the Promised Land with the Ten Commandments as their founding document.
It is the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, that came to mean most to me during my ten days in Jerusalem.
By coincidence also, two days after the president’s departure, I was invited by the Antiquities Authority of Israel to learn of the ongoing preservation, restoration, digitizing and unraveling of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the course of the tour by the generous and charismatic Pnina Shor, curator and head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project, I was presented with a close viewing of the thing itself: the intact, two-thousand-year-old scroll of the Ten Commandments known as 4Q41, or 4QDeuteronomy, also known as the All Souls Deuteronomy for the congregation that purchased it from those who found it in the Qumran cave number 4 in 1952.
It is profoundly impressive, about 18 inches long, laid out on a screen that is kept covered from the light in carefully controlled environmental conditions. You know instantly that it is a treasure of civilization. There is nothing comparable in my experience in witnessing history through documents, so I report that I was dumbfounded.
The 4Q41 the is oldest complete version yet found and is rarely available for non-scholars to witness. Staring at it is exactly the same as glimpsing two millennia back in time to its creation in the Herodian period 30–1 BCE. In other words, this is the very same Decalogue that was learned by Jesus and his disciples.
The passages in the preserved scrolls are Deuteronomy 8:5-10 and Deuteronomy 5:1-6:1.
My colleague from the Ministry of Tourism, Yossi Yair, read a passage pointed out by Pnina Shor, Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honor your father and mother, as the Lord God has commanded you . . .”
Yossi looked up and explained to me, “It is the same as the words today. It’s like printing today. No difference.”
Later, watching the horror in Manchester, the NATO news in Brussels, and the cacophony in Washington, I found it useful to think about the 4Q41 scroll.
The Ten Commandments written on it might very well be why it is possible to be certain that the Manchester bombers are wrong-headed and have been so for two millennia. Why working with allies to maintain the peace is as correct today as it was in Herod’s day. Why I am able to measure the politics of Washington this spring as so much fleeting enthusiasm.
Also Israelis told me how assured they were by President’s Trump’s visit to the Western Wall when he touched the thing itself, the authority of the Ten Commandments.