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G-d spoke all these statements, saying, ‘I am the Lord your G-d, Who has taken you from the Land of Egypt... (20:1-2)
These words introduce the Ten Commandments. It is a widespread custom in Ashkenazi synagogues to stand up when they are read from the Sefer Torah. A well-known reason refers to the principle expounded by Saadia Gaon: each one of the 613 Mitzvot belongs to one of the Ten Commandments. For example the laws of the Festivals come under Shabbat, those of paying one’s employee on time under theft and so on. Thus the Ten Commandments are the complete microcosm of Torah observance. They were subsequently explained and expanded in G-d’s teaching Moses the meanings of the Torah over the next forty days, whose more detailed laws are recorded from Parashat Mishpatim onwards.
What exactly did the Israelites hear from G-d? Based on the above verse, the Midrash (Mechilta 20:1) brings the tradition that G-d recited all the Ten Commandments in one instant – implying that the Israelites heard all ten from G-d. However the Talmud (Makkot 24a) states that they heard only the first two directly; the remaining eight were conveyed from G-d hrough Moses. Rashi on the above verse implies how the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions may be reconciled. G-d’s initial instant presentation of the Ten Commandments was heard, but not understood. His subsequent declaration of the first two Commandments was clear, and spelt out to the Israelites. The whole experience, however, was so spiritually intense that they begged to hear the rest from Moses: they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen: let not G-d speak to us, less we will die” (20:16).
Why did G-d speak to the Israelites directly, but incomprehensibly, in the first place? Surely if the message was not to be understood, it would have not been worth uttering in the first place?
One clue may be found through studying the last Mitzva in the Torah – Hakhel – the Assembly, where once every seven years the King was obligated to read the Book of Deuteronomy to the entire public (Talmud: Sotah 41a). The Torah instructs this ceremony in the following way:
Assemble together the people, the men, the women, and the small children… so that they will hear, and that they will learn, and fear G-d… and be careful to fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deut. 31:12).
Of all the 613 Mitzvot, that is the only one where small children are explicitly involved. The Ramban explains that even where they do not understand, they will still ask, and want to know more. In other words, the ceremony of the King reading the Torah in public will elevate the Torah to such a high level in their own eyes, that they will be receptive to Torah education as they grow older.
This idea may be extended in the following way. When a young child is exposed to something that he cannot make sense of, something nevertheless sinks in. For example, an eight-year old boy attends a Talmud shiur together with his father. The topic, let us say, is on the complicated criteria of when a thirteen-month leap year should be declared, as expounded in Sanhedrin 12a. He did not understand anything from the shiur. Yet when he came across that Gemara ten years later, he suddenly felt comfortable and at ease. That passage meant something to him. He was in familiar and secure territory. It echoes were familiar. That brought joy to his final mastery of the hard passage, and made it yet more memorable.
Applying this principle to G-d’s presentation of the Ten Commandments, He did not give the Israelites comprehensive understanding by His initial presentation of the Ten Commandments. However, the instant revelation did make a dramatic impact by imposing the taste and the spirit of G-d’s Revealed Law. Like the eight-year old child, it gave a background onto which the subsequent learning of the Ten Commandments, and their breakdown into 613 mitzvot would readily fit in and be fully accepted (24:7).
In addition, the instant and initially incomprehensible revelation impressed on the Israelites the unity and wholeness of the Torah. This was to teach them – and us - that the Torah experience is only such if one is committed to observe all Mitzvot, in harmony. A person may be friendly, helpful, charitable, and of the highest integrity, but however virtuous these qualities are, they are not, by themselves, the Torah. Another individual observes the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, and sexual modesty to the last detail in the Shulchan Aruch, but he shuns and shows open contempt for those who are not in his specific religious or political circle – violating the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18).
Furthermore, there are certain Mitzvot which by themselves maybe be difficult and inconvenient, but take on beauty when put into the framework of the whole Torah. Thus refraining from the numerous prohibitions of Shabbat can be demanding. But they take on new meaning when combined with the deep spiritual qualities of Shabbat – the unique atmosphere in Kabbalat Shabbat, the Kiddush and the festive Seudot, focussing on the family, guests, Zemirot, and Divrei Torah. Developing this idea, Torah observance only becomes the Torah experience in all its infinite beauty when accepted to the last detail.
This perhaps explains why a Sefer Torah that has just one letter missing does not have the intrinsic holiness of a Sefer Torah (Rambam: Yad Hachazaka - Hilchot Tefillin Ve-Mezuzzah Ve-Sefer Torah 10:1). A Torah must be whole – each letter contributes a unique input – in order to be His revealed guide to the harmony of the Creation and of how to maximize one’s limited earthly existence. And the whole is worth far more than all the individual parts.
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF PARASHAT YITRO
Who said to whom, and under what circumstances?
(a) Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all the gods.
(b) What you are doing is not good.
(c) This entire people shall arrive at its destination in peace.
(d) I have carried you on the wings of eagles.
(e) You shall be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.
(f) We shall do everything that G-d has said.
(g) So that they will… believe in you forever.
(h) Honor your father and mother.
(i) Do not let G-d speak to us, lest we die.
(j) For you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF PARASHAT YITRO
(a) Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, to Moses (18:11), on hearing from Moses about the miracles of the Exodus.
(b) Jethro to Moses (18:17), in telling him that he could not deal with all the disputes between the Israelites single-handed.
(c) Jethro to Moses (18:23), in assuring him that there would be peaceful relations between the Israelites were he to appoint assistants in settling their day-to-day disputes.
(d) G-d to Moses (19:4) - in reference to His supernatural leading of the Israelites from Egypt to Sinai.
(e) G-d to Moses (19:6) - in His telling Moses to urge the Israelites to keep His Commandments, by whose merits they would become His Chosen People.
(f) The Israelites to Moses (19:8), in accepting their side of the Covenant to be His Chosen People.
(g) G-d to Moses (19:9), impressing on him that the miracles within the Revelation at Sinai would make a lasting and permanent impression on the Israelite Nation.
(h) Unclear from the text whether it was G-d or Moses who related this Fifth Commandment to the Israelites (20:12). See answer to Question #3, in the 'Other Commentaries' section below.
(i) The Israelites to Moses (20:16), in begging him to act as an intermediary between themselves and G-d, and not continue to let them stand in the all-too-intense Presence of the Almighty Himself.
(j) G-d to Moses (20:22), in telling him to relate to the Israelites that the use of metal as a tool for cutting the stones of an altar invalidates it. For metal cutting implements have the negative association of swords and death.
QUESTIONS ON RASHI'S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT YITRO.
From where may the following values and teachings be derived in Rashi's commentary in Parashat Yitro?
(a) A man going into danger should avoid dragging his wife and children into it if at all possible.
(b) Never say anything negative about a person's background, however righteous he might be.
(c) Those who partake of a meal with Torah Scholars are reckoned as having experienced the radiance of the Divine Presence.
(d) A person - however great he is - should avoid unnecessarily taking other people's time.
(e) Honest and worthy judges are regarded by the Torah as participants in the Creation.
(f) Different methods are applied when teaching males on one hand, and females, on the other.
(g) Those that honestly endeavor to keep the Torah will receive help from the Almighty.
(h) A person can only be reckoned as having received a true warning if it is delivered twice - once before the action, and a second time at when the action is about to take place.
(i) The Divine reward of keeping a Mitzva is five hundred times the magnitude of the punishment for a transgression.
(j) The full name of G-d should not be pronounced outside the Temple.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON RASHI'S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT YITRO.
(a) This idea may be learnt from the tradition related on his comment to 18:2. Although the text states that Moses travelled with his family from Midian towards Egypt (4:20), the traditon relates that when Aaron met them, he urged Moses to send his family back to Midian (compare with 'after he sent her away': 18:2) because there was no reason why they should be added to the numbers of the suffering Israelites... The family were only re-united after the Exodus and the early trials and tribulations in the wilderness.
(b) The phrase 'vayichad Yitro' (18:9) has a double meaning according to the Midrashic tradition. It can mean 'Jethro rejoiced' and it can also mean 'Jethro suffered unease'. This means that despite his happiness for the Israelites, he was not altogether joyful about Egypt's suffering - even though he recognized G-d as the true Power, he could not forget his once closeness to the Egyptians...
(c) This is derived from the words: Aaron and all the Israelite elders came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses - before G-d (18:12). The words 'before G-d' suggest tha the assembly of such worthy individuals caused the Divine Presence to be with them.
(d) Jetho's questioning Moses about the long lines of people waiting for his attention (18:13) implied rebuke - he should devise a method of dispensing justice without wasting the time and encroaching on the personal dignity of those who needed guidance.
(e) Moses is implied to have been judging disputes between the Israelites 'from the morning until evening'. (18:13) Homiletically, this expression is linked up by the Talmud (Shabbat 10a) with the profuse use of 'morning' and 'evening' in the Torah's account of G-d's Creating the Heavens and the Earth.
(f) The text relating G-d's preparing Moses to teach the terms of the Covenant to become the Chosen People is phrased 'tomar' (say) to the House of Jacob and 'taged' (tell) to the Israelites (19:3). Rashi brings the tradition that the House of Jacob are the women and the Israelties are the men. 'Saying' implies gentleness and tenderness - in educating the women. 'Telling' is harsher and more direct - more effective with men...
(g) This is derived from the words 'im shamoa tishma-oo' (19:5) which may be rendered 'if you listen, you will listen' - if you make the serious commitment to observe the Commandments, 'you will be able to listen' - you will have help from the Almighty to perform what you have indeed committed yourself to do...
(h) This rule may be derived in the following manner. Although Moses had warned the Israelites not to set hand or foot on Mount Sinai, G-d told him to warn the Israelites a second time - just before the actual Revelation (19:24).
(i) This tradition is hinted at by the text of the Ten Commandments stating that transgressors will be only punished up to the fourth generation (20:5), [if the children after being duly warned follow in the negative footsteps of their parents - Sanhedrin 27b)]. But those who keep the Commandments will experience His kindness for 'thousands' (the plural implies a minimum of two thousand) - two thousand generations; five hundred times the time span of the four generations of the sinners.
(j) This is derived from the words: 'wherever I permit My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you' (20:21). The 'blessing' is associated with the most intense manifestation of the Divine Presence - the Temple. Homiletically, Rashi brings the view that only were there is that intense Presence and blessing, may the Divine Name be pronounced.
OTHER COMMENTARIES TO PARASHAT YITRO
1. Rashi brings the tradition that Jethro's visit to the Israelites in the desert was because 'Jethro heard' (18:1) about the miracle at the Red Sea and the defeat of Amalek. Why were those miracles in particular specified, according to the Ohr Hachayim?
2. When G-d specified that the Israelites were to be the Chosen People, He added 'for all the world is Mine'. (19:5) What is the meaning of that phrase according to (a) Rashi and (b) the S'forno?
3. Which of the Ten Commandments did the Israelites hear directly from G-d, and which ones did they hear from Moses - according to (a) Rashi and the Ramban (b) the Rambam?
4. How, according to the Ramban, is the Shabbat 'blessed' and 'sanctified'? (20:11)
5. How do (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban translate the words 'le-vaavur nasot etchem' in 20:17?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO PARASHAT YITRO
1. The Ohr Hachayim states that the miracles of the crossing of the Red Sea may be seen as a demonstration of G-d's wrath against the Egyptians. but His intervention on the side of the Israelites when Amalek attacked showed that G-d's motives were that He would intervene on behalf of the Israelites.
2. 'For all the world is Mine' (19:5), means, according to Rashi, that He chose Israel for his special love and rejected the other nations. The Sforno takes a more universalist view: the entire world and all humanity is precious to Him, but Israel is the most loved by Him.
3. According to Rashi and the Ramban, the Israelites heard all the Tem Commandments from G-d (following 20:1), but since it was in one Divine utterance, they could not understand them or take them in. Then G-d repeated them word for word, and after they had heard the first two Commandments, they were no longer able to bear the intense direct Divine communication, and they begged Moses instead to teach them the rest. The Rambam (Guide 2:32) holds that they heard the first two only from G-d, but in the form of sounds they could not understand. Moses, however, did comprehend them, and thus taught the Torah to the Israelites.
4. According to the Ramban, the Shabbat is 'blessed' because it the source of blessing for the forthcoming week, and it it 'sanctified' as it draws its holiness from other spiritual spheres.
5. According to Rashi, G-d revealed Himself at Mount Sinai to 'raise' the Israelites to a greater spiritual height - so that they should not sin in the future. The Ramban translates 'lenasot' meaning 'to test' (as in Gen. 22:1). Having come close to G-d at first hand, would they be more able to resist the human temptation to sin?
MY FAVORITE COMMENT ON THIS PARASHA is from Rashi's opening comments to the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment states: 'I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of... Egypt'. (20:2) Rashi explains why He identified Himself in that way at Sinai. In Egypt, and at the Red Sea, the Israelites saw Him as a powerful and mighty warrior (15:3), defending them against the overpowering strength of the Egyptians. At Sinai, they saw Him very differently - as an elderly and compassionate Father, Who had suffered with them in Egypt (see 24:10). Lest people might think that they were two separate gods, as was common at the time, G-d opened the Ten Commandments with the firm statement that He was the Almighty - both at the Red Sea, and at Sinai.
ITEMS FOR DISCUSSION ON PARASHAT YITRO
1. What was so special about Jethro’s advice to Moses that earned it a place of merit in the Torah – and indeed why does the Torah give him great credit for his suggestion: ‘Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all he said’ (18:24)?
2. Why do the Ten Commandments so strongly emphasize the nature of the actual relationship between Man and G-d. and between Man and Man, but have relatively little focus on ritual observance?
*Please note – My own attempts to deal with the issues related in #1 and #2 may be found in the archives for 5762 and 5761 respectively in Shema Yisrael – on Parashat Yitro.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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