Preparations for the Covenant at Mt. Sinai
Holiness Means Separation or Setting Aside
Aseret Ha-devarim (Ten Words or Ten Commandments)
Contains three positive mitzvahs and fourteen prohibitions
o Comes to visit his son-in-law Moshe in the desert with his daughter Tziporah and grandsons Gershom and Eliezer
o Advises Moshe to build a judicial hierarchy of judges to cope with the Israelites’ legal and religious questions
o Is seen off by Moshe when he leaves to return to his land
Israelites camp near Mt. Sinai
God chooses the nation of Israel for His very own
Preparations for receiving the Torah
The Ten Commandments are spoken by God in a single utterance, after which He goes back and repeats each one individually (according to the Gutnick Edition of the Torah)
Afterwards, additional mitzvahs are given:
o To not make any images of anything with God
o To build an altar attached to (or filled with) earth
o An altar of stones is to consist of uncut stones
o The ramp to the altar shall not be stepped, lest one’s nakedness be exposed.
“Vayishma Yisro” (“And Yisro heard”)
Yisro the high priest (or prince) of Midian and father-in-law of Moshe, heard about the wonderful things that God had done for His people:
• Splitting the Reed Sea
• War with Amalek
• Providing manna
• Providing water
• Taking them out of Egypt
He brings his daughter Tzipporah, (Moshe’s wife), and their two sons to the camp where the Israelites are based. This reunification of the family would make for some degree of normalcy in the life of Moshe who, until then, was isolated: He was the nation’s leader and “had his head in the clouds” (i.e., his ongoing and constant relationship with the divine precluded involvement with the mundane).
Rabbi Marc Angel citing a Chassidic Rebbe, explains that Yisro did more than just hear. He listened, drew conclusions about the news and realized that he needed/wanted to visit, express solidarity with Moshe and his people, and find ways to help them.
Yisro sets the example for behavior. Instead of tuning out and joining the “silent majority”, he considered what was at stake and what action needed to be taken. His recommendation to Moshe to reform the court system enabled justice to be delivered more efficiently and at the same time relieved Moshe of a time-consuming and tiring burden. “Those who listen are the ones who enter the fray and change the world for the better.”
Furthermore, notes Rabbi Angel, the fact that the Ten Commandments presented later in the Parsha is written in the singular and not the plural form, suggests that God was addressing each of us individually and “wanted every person to listen to His words and take them personally; He did not want them to simply hear Him.” These words were uttered for all people for all generations until the end of time.
Yisro’s advising Moshe to appoint judges is introduced at this point (even though it took place later, after the giving of the Torah) to demonstrate the sharp contrast between the personification of Evil that is Amalek (the closing subject of last week’s parsha), and non-Israelites like Yisro who are solid, honest and decent human beings.
According to the Sages, Yisro converted to Judaism after having been a worshiper of “every form of Idolatry”. He became an outcast among his people when he discarded pagan beliefs. He abandoned his great wealth and prominence to become an ordinary Israelite in the desert. He was the first to be an Israelite by choice.
Yisro’s willingness to struggle to overcome all obstacles to convert prompts Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo to pose the following question to those who are already religiously observant: “Would we have opted for Judaism had we not been born Jewish? And if yes, would this not mean that we would have to start all over again, discovering it on our own so as to comprehend what it is really all about?” His response is that for us to become Jews by choice, real Jews, we need to begin to perform each mitzvah as if we have never done it before. Only when one performs a mitzvah and does it not out of tradition or habit but “approaches it as a novice as did Yisro, can one experience its full power.”
Preparations for the Covenant at Mt. Sinai
In the third month (Sivan) the Israelites unified as “one person with one heart”, prepare for this momentous occasion. Moshe is instructed to speak to “Bais Yaakov” (the women) and declare to “Bnai Yisroel” (men) and remind them how God has “asah” (carried them) “aal kanfey nesharim” (on eagles’ wings) to bring them to Him and that if they obey Him and keep His covenant He will make them His “aam segulah (treasured nation)” and “a kingdom of Priests and a Kadosh(Holy) nation”.
The exquisite imagery is of swiftly, safely and rapidly ascending soaring eagles that carry their fledglings on their wings, unafraid of being attacked by other birds from above because they fly higher than all other birds. Through His selection, protection and nurturing of the Israelites, the nation will soar and achieve moral, ethical and creative heights. Fulfillment of this journey on eagles’ wings occurred again in 1949 when 45,000 Jews in Yemen were flown to Israel (Operation Magic Carpet) and then again in 1991 when Israel’s Operation Solomon airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to their Homeland.
“Aam segulah” (“treasured nation”) has been translated inaccurately by some as “chosen nation”, communicating a supercilious, better-than-thou haughtiness that is resented by non-Jews (one basis for anti-Semitism) and by some Jews. In fact, the expression incorporates our special responsibility to behave ethically and morally and to observe the Torah law with all its restrictions, if we are to earn and keep this special relationship.
Being a “kingdom of Priests” means administering to the rest of humanity. This radical idea is that every person-- not just a select few leaders or priests-- has a religious calling.
“Holiness” Means Separation or Setting Aside…
• In behavior
• In place (Holy Temple)
• In time (Shabbat; Holy days)
• To think for oneself (e.g., not following a mob or crowd)
• From pagan worship and from a distinctive “profession” (i.e., a prostitute is called a kedaysha)
Being holy does not mean withdrawing and separating completely from the surrounding Society. On the contrary, the Torah is filled with practical prohibitions, regulations and laws--both humanitarian and ritualistic--that affect all aspects of our life and which, when observed, make us unique. Avoidance of certain types of behavior—and the self-control it demands—defines our persona and prevents us from becoming naval b’rshus hatorah (offensive when observing the Torah laws).
Martin Buber understands kedusha as separating but not withdrawing just like God Who transcends and is separate from the world but has not withdrawn from it. We are commanded to imitate Him (Imitatio Dei) and to “radiate a positive influence on them (the world of the nations) through every aspect of our Jewish living.” It is our unique life style of self-control and ethical behavior that defines us, separates us and makes us different (i.e., holy). It is the duality of ethically engaging with the world while at the same adhering to religious life and ritual in an unboastful way that defines our destiny in the world.
Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, author of Holiness a Negative Concept, offers the intriguing notion that the restraint and self-control inherent in negative behavior commandments (lo sa’ase) is the thing that makes an individual kodesh, presumably because successfully battling the urge to succumb builds character.
The theophany at Mt. Sinai was the uniquely defining moment for Israel. The Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one, so no nation could claim that it was not made available to them. God’s offer of the Torah to other nations was rejected (according to the Midrash) because the restrictions contained in it contradicted their national practices. But the Israelites responded “Naase V’nishma”-- “we will do and we will listen”-- even before they heard its details.
• We all heard His public pronouncements. Other religions are built on an assumed Divine communication was heard or experienced solely and privately by the founder. This public Revelation proves the historical truth of Judaism, according to the Spanish-Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), author of The Kuzari
• We accepted Him as an ongoing force in our lives
• Our nation was born based on common obligations and shared Sinai experience, where no unity existed previously
These commandments reflect the Covenantal relationship between Man and God. They are addressed to the individual, each according to his or her own understanding, and underscore the duty of each person to do his or her share. The specifics are stated tersely but elaborated upon and detailed subsequently in the Torah. All the Mitzvahs can be categorized in these ten broad groupings.
Aseret Ha-devarim (Ten Words or Ten Commandments)
“I am the Lord your God…
You shall have no other gods beside me…
You shall not swear falsely…
Remember the Sabbath day…
Honor your father and mother…
You shall not murder
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal
You shall not bear false witness
You shall not covet…”
In the first two commandments God speaks in the first person. The rest are expressed in the third person. The Israelites, frightened by the sound of the Divine voice and His overwhelming presence, demanded that the last eight be said by Moshe in God’s name.
The commandments are presented on two tablets, each listing five. The first five, consisting of matters between Man and God, mention His name and include punishment for violation and reward for observance. The fifth, to honor one’s parents, (included on this tablet because God is a partner with parents in creation and education of children) is the bridge to the left tablet, which consists of five staccato, short statements demanding ethical behavior between Man and his fellow Man. The left hand side commandments have no associated reward or punishment. They are deemed to be fundamental basic, universal ethical behavior requirements for one to be included in the Community of God.
Ibn Ezra notes that the commandments on the right begin with beliefs, then work their way up to verbal behavior, then observance of one day a week and then full- time behavior. In Divine matters faith lays the groundwork for observance. By contrast, the commandments on the left start with the most reprehensible behavior (murder), then lesser immoralities (adultery, stealing) then deceitful speech and finally sinful thoughts and desires. In the real world, we are commanded to work on the worst behavior first and then gradually work our way down to dealing with our speech and then controlling our impulses. Perhaps it is our failure to control our internal urges outlined in commandment number ten that accounts for the behavior listed in the previous four. Ours is a religion of deed before creed!
I. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage”
Is this a statement or commandment?
Abravanel and others maintain that there is no commandment to believe in God because Torah cannot dictate belief. Their conclusion is that it is a statement that records what God did for the Israelites, which is the basis for His subsequent commandments. The introductory phrase resembles preambles that appear in ancient documents.
Rambam asserts that there is a commandment to believe in God. One is obligated to realize that there is cause and motive in the world; that God intervenes in human affairs (like freeing the Israelites from Egypt); and that one needs to observe, investigate and then realize the Awesome-ness of God and all He has created.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin summarizes that ethical monotheism—the idea that One Universal God rules and demands ethical conduct from human beings— “comprises Judaism’s major intellectual and spiritual contribution to the world.”
Rabbi Benno Jacob (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) sees the importance of the phrase “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage” as the Divine rejection of lands of culture [like Egypt] that are built on human slavery and misery and that prosper at the expense of personal freedom. God removed us from this environment of enslavement.
Rav S.R. Hirsch explains that this is not just about the existence of God, but “that this One unique, true God is to be my God, that he created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads and guides me”.
II. “You shall have no other God besides me…”
We are to recognize God’s singularity and are forbidden to present Him in any form of sculptured image.
Idolatry means the idealization and worship of anything believed to be greater than God. We are prohibited from “worshiping”, for example, money or technology in its many forms (bio-engineering, medical, computer software, and Artificial Intelligence) as the ultimate power in the universe.
Nechama Leibowitz surveys possible meanings of the expression “besides me” …
Or Ha-chayyim thinks it means God’s demand of exclusive worship because once a person starts worshiping even only one other deity he will end up worshiping many
Chizkuni: If you accept another master, know it will be in defiance of Me (i.e., in my face)
Onkeles: besides me, or in addition to me
Rashi/Midrash: in my presence. Just like God’s existence is eternal so is the prohibition of idolatry
Ramban: God is present everywhere so knows whether one is idolatrous publicly or in private
Avraham, son of the Rambam: Because of God’s Omnipresence, we are prohibited from accepting the services of any mediator between Him and Man
Impassioned God promises “visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children” if the children remain wicked like the father.
The prohibition against idolatry includes the making idols out of the mitzvahs, says the Rebbe of Kotsk. “We should never imagine that the chief purpose of a mitzva is its outer form, rather it is the inward meaning, the devotion with which it is done”.
III. “Lo Seesaw (You should not take) the name of the Lord your God in vain…”
We are commanded not to use the Divine name in false (swearing a tree is a rock) and unnecessary oaths (swearing a tree is a tree). We are to safeguard His name from obliteration. We are not to trivialize His name.
The word “seesaw” can also mean carry. As such, Rabbi Telushkin understands this commandment to mean that one is prohibited from citing (i.e., “carrying”) God’s name and authority for promoting an evil cause (like Crusaders murdering innocents in the name of God or racist organizations like Ku Klux Klan or ISIS claiming they are doing God’s will).
IV. “Remember the Sabbath day and make it holy…”
The Sabbath, already practiced by the Israelites since the appearance of the manna, was a revolutionary innovation in its demand that not only humans but also servants and animals cease from working on that day. The ancients mocked the idea. Workaholics take note: We all are entitled to have at least one seventh of their lives for ourselves—to rest, to think, to rejoice, to contemplate, to study and to rejuvenate both our spiritual and physical lives.
Sabbath is about testifying that God created the universe. Sabbath is about the renewal of spiritual life. Sabbath is about imitating God, who on the seventh day ceased creating, having concluded that all that He had made in the first six days of Creation was very good. What is prohibited is any action that is creative and productive, as defined by the thirty-nine categories of activity that were employed in the building of the Tabernacle.
Some have argued that Sabbath is Israel’s most original contribution to world law with its unvarying, religiously-demanded intervals whose observance is both an unchanging weekly obligation and an inalienable privilege. The Hebrew essayist and Zionist thinker Achad Ha-Am (“one of the people”, pen name of Asher Ginsberg,1856-1927) captured its importance for the nation throughout history in the pithy observation that “More than Israel has guarded the Shabbat, the Shabbat has guarded Israel”.
V. “Honor your father and your mother so that your days will be lengthened…”
Treatment of parents left much to be desired, it appears, in ancient times.
The conflict between child and parent seems inherent in the human condition to the point where God promises family harmony (in Malachi 3:24) by interceding and sending the prophet Elijah to “reconcile the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children in their relationship with their fathers”.
The Torah does not command us to love our parents since one cannot dictate emotions. We are commanded to behave in a way that honors our parents. Cabayd—the Hebrew word for honor—is from the root word for “heavy”, suggesting that this commandment is among, if not the, “heaviest”, most important and most difficult one to observe. Children owe their lives to their parents, and their constant watchful concern.
The root word cabayd also means liver, that body organ that the ancients believed was the source of heaviness, anger, and melancholy (and perhaps, in modern day parlance, conflict and depression). In modern psychological terms these may refer to the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex.
This fifth commandment, listed among those that have to do with Man’s relationship with God, makes the point that God is a partner with parents in the creation of offspring both physically and spiritually. Also, respecting and honoring parents is one facet of respecting and honoring God. That this commandment segues to the last five (between Man and Man) suggests, perhaps, that the behavior listed and prohibited on the left hand side of the Decalogue (murder, theft, adultery) may be rooted in internal conflicts related to a failure of reconciliation with one’s parents.
Cabayd may also mean to treat with dignity, specifically as it relates to this new generation that has and is burying the older generation and is reminded to do this task in a respectful, dignified manner.
Rav Yissocher Frand deals with the question of how far one must go to respect parents by citing the story of a non-Jew from Ashkelon named Dama bar Nesinah (Kiddushin 31a).
Dama owned a particular stone needed for the Urim v'Tumim. The Sages offered to pay him a huge sum for the stone. The stone was in a strongbox, with the key under his father's pillow.
When he told the Sages “I cannot help you; my father is sleeping, and I wouldn't disturb his sleep” they left.
A year later, a perfect red heifer, suitable for a parah adumah, was born in Dama's herd. The Sages came to purchase it. When asked how much he wanted for it, Dama replied "I know that you would give me any price I ask, but I only want the amount of money I lost by not waking my father last year."
As parents get older, they can become more demanding and test the patience of their children. Is there a limit to such patience? How much patience can be expected of a person? Is there a point where a person is allowed to run out of patience and be exempt from this mitzvah? Rav Frand concludes that Dama’s experience shows us the extent to which we are capable of honoring parents even under such tempting circumstances.
The respect for our parents extends beyond their lives and is manifest in the twelve month morning period required for their death, compared to only thirty days mourning for other relatives. Rabbi Hillel Davis shared with me a discussion on this topic between the great Torah scholars Rav Teitz, Rav Hutner and Rav Soloveitchik. The first two Gedolim explained that the reasons for this longer mourning period are 1) since one can only have one set of parents (while one can have multiple siblings or spouses or children) the loss for a parent is so much more severe and 2) because the loss of a parent severs the connection to Sinai. The Rav opines that there may be a tendency to feel that the death of a parent is normal and expected, since parents generally die before their children. The Halacha forces us not to underestimate the profundity and intensity of the loss and its effect on us by mandating that we experience the longer (and longest) mourning period.
These insights by our Gedolim resonate with psychological truths about the profound effect that death of a parent can have on a person’s mental health and behavior. Freud called the death of his father "the most poignant loss" of his life, an event that prompted him to start self-analysis. Furthermore, he theorized that the illness or the death of one's parents can trigger a response “of punishing oneself in a hysterical fashion...with the same states [of illness] that they have had”. The profound, unconscious love-hate that can exist in a child-parent relationship is the heaviest burden one has to cope with in life (and, therefore, the use of the word cabayd).
There is intense, unimaginable pain in the loss of a child, but there is not the potentially life-long ongoing conflict described by Freud in the parent-child relationship. It is this depressive struggle and conflict (and possible associated guilt) in the parent-child relationship that prompts the need for twelve times more time to work through. The Halacha demands the extended period be observed by all, even by those who may not feel the need for it (lo pluug).
Loss of our parents, our creators, is akin to loss of the connection with God the Parent/Creator of both us and the universe.
For honoring parents, we are assured “that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you”. Failing to honor parents precludes the development of a wholesome, harmonious life and will result in the Holy Land’s rejecting us.
The long life may mean the promise of being remembered by one’s children or that by having children one’s life is extended. Or perhaps it means an improved quality of life. In Rav Sadya Gaon’s view this commandment is greater than the other nine. “If you honor your parents, your children will honor you”, following your example.
VI. You shall not “Tirtzach” (murder; commit unauthorized homicide)
What is prohibited is killing someone not deserving of death. The Hebrew word for killing is harog. Many incorrectly translate this prohibition to mean not “to kill” when in fact killing is permitted in certain circumstances including self-defense and a house intruder believed to be a mortal threat.
VII. You shall not commit adultery
Adultery--when a married woman has sexual relations with anyone other than her husband, both are guilty--is considered a sin against God and, therefore, cannot be absolved by a forgiving spouse.
VIII. You shall not steal
It is prohibited to kidnap… to take something belonging to someone else without permission…to deal deceitfully or falsely…to defraud.
IX. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
A corrupt judiciary will pervert society. Justices are prohibited from favoring or even giving the appearance of favoring either party, rich or poor. Perjury is taboo as are deviations from the truth in and out of the courtroom. The punishment for lying witnesses is imposition of the financial amount they intended to extract from the party they were testifying against.
X. You shall not “sachmod” (covet) your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his female slave or his ox or his donkey or anything that is your neighbor’s.
To covet is to want or yearn to have someone else’s possession at his/her expense. The sin is wanting something at another’s expense. The Hebrew root-word “sachmod” means a burning desire so strong that the individual may act on his impulse. Reasoning that one cannot be punished for one’s uncontrollable desires and thoughts, some maintain that the sin occurs only after there is a physical taking of the coveted item.
Others view this commandment as a means of controlling our passions. It is an anti-entitlement concept. Ibn Ezra argues that because we only covet what we feel is within our reach, we need to train ourselves to consider others’ possessions as things so far removed from the possibility of our ownership. We don’t envy those we know we never could become.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ intriguing analysis views the Commandments as three groups of three:
The first three are about God, the Author and Authority…
• One God
• No other God
• Not taking God’s name in vain
The second set is about “createdness”…
• Shabbat is about the creation of the universe
• Honoring parents who created us and brought us into the world
• Murder is prohibited because we all are created equally by God
The third set is about the basic institutions of Society…
• Not to commit adultery is about the sanctity of marriage
• Not to steal is about sanctity of private property
• Not to bear false witness is about the administration of justice
The final Commandment is devoted to the emotion of envy and its devastating effects. Cognitive behavior theory has concluded that beliefs can mold feelings, a core idea also found in Tanya. A false belief about reality can trigger rage (in a situation, for example, where a person’s [baseless] belief that others are talking about him can trigger anger and resentment).
Envy is one of the prime drivers of violence, as is clear from the Torah (Kayin and Hevel; Yosef and his brothers) and from world history. This burning desire to have what belongs to someone else or to be someone else can drive people to commit adultery; to steal; to give false testimony; and even to murder! Envy is singled out for attention because it is the force that undermines the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments.
Belief in God; being reminded of God’s presence in history and in our lives; and thinking about the concept of “createdness” can help us thwart envy. We exist because God created us and we have what He wanted us to have. Defining ourselves in relationship to other people (rather than in relation to God) triggers strife and envy and brings unhappiness.
The antidote for envy is gratitude. It is the “modeh ani” we say when we awake –expressing thanks before we think or say anything else. It is the idea embodied in Ben Zoma’s statement that the only person who can be considered rich is the one who rejoices in—and is satisfied with-- whatever he has.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that once we are freed of our letting others’ happiness determine ours, “we release a wave of positive energy allowing us to celebrate what we have instead of thinking about what other people have, and to be what we are instead of wanting to be what we are not.”