Parshat Yitro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 There and Then: The “Ten” Commandments

Yesterday, paradoxically, I wrote about Here Today, about Here and Now in accordance with a comic genre. Today, I will address the issue of There and Then, again, a paradox, but one within the genre of tragedy.

Tragedies often begin with messengers. Parshat Yitro in chapter 18 begins with Jethro, a pagan priest and Moses’ father-in-law who begins by listening to Moses’ tale of what God instructed him to do, what happened and how he led his people out of Israel with God’s guidance. Jethro listened and heard. He also reprimanded. Jethro concluded (18:10-11):

0[Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. יוַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם:
11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” יאעַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל יְהוָֹ֖ה מִכָּל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּ֣י בַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָד֖וּ עֲלֵיהֶֽם:

It is a pagan who recognizes the Hebrew God as the most powerful god.

Second, the next day it is also Jethro who teaches Moses the first and most important principle of governance: delegation and separation of the judicial and executive functions of office. Arafat sought to rule like a traditional sheikh, dispensing both favours and judgements. I witnessed it personally on a visit to Gaza late one evening. It cannot and does not work but rather leads to cronyism, corruption and poor governance.

Why does Jethro pronounce Moses’ efforts to listen to disputes between and among neighbours and then make the disputants aware of the law and God’s interpretation as without worth? First, because Moses cannot do such a job alone. In the words of Isaiah, it makes “fat the heart” and that is “not good”. Instead, Jethro insists that Moses’ responsibility is not to be a judge at all, but a defence attorney and his client shall be the Israelites whom he is told to defend in the court of God. The major event and issues are tensions and disputes between man and God not between and among humans.

Moses must also be a teacher about God’s laws and ordinances as well as a defence attorney as distinct from a judge. Only in this way will Moses be able to survive as a leader and ensure peace for the people of Israel.

After Jethro returned to the land of the Midianites, he left Moses to lead his people as he had instructed him. The Israelites moved on and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.

3Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, גוּמשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָֹה֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
4‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me. דאַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָֽאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָֽאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי:
5And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. הוְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִֽהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
6And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” ווְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

Obey. Keep my covenant. And in this way become a holy nation. Moses took that message back to the people and they agreed to do as God wished. When Moses returned to God with that agreement, God promised Moses that when he speaks, the people will hear and they will have faith in your leadership. But they must not try to ascend the mountain themselves, but only go to the rim at the bottom lest they meet their destruction. Then Moses ascends and returns from the mountain with what is known as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments first inscribed in chapter 20.

2“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. באָֽנֹכִ֨י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֽוֹצֵאתִ֩יךָ֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֗ים:
3You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. גלֹ֣א יִֽהְיֶ֣ה־לְךָ֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים אֲחֵרִ֜ים עַל־פָּנַ֗י:
4You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. דלֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂה־לְּךָ֣ פֶ֣סֶל | וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם | מִמַּ֡עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁר֩ בָּאָ֨רֶץ מִתַּ֜חַת וַֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמַּ֣יִם | מִתַּ֣חַת לָאָ֗רֶץ:
5You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, הלֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֣ה לָהֶם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָֽעָבְדֵם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵ֠ד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֽׂנְאָ֑י:
6and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments. ווְעֹ֤שֶׂה חֶ֨סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֔ים לְאֹֽהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹֽׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֹתָֽי:
7You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain. זלֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ לַשָּֽׁוְא:
8Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. חזָכוֹר֩ אֶת־י֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֜ת לְקַדְּשׁ֗וֹ:
9Six days may you work and perform all your labor, טשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים תַּֽעֲבֹד֘ וְעָשִׂ֣יתָ כָל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ֒:
10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. יוְי֨וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י שַׁבָּ֣ת | לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡ה אַתָּ֣ה | וּבִנְךָ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ֨ וַֽאֲמָֽתְךָ֜ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֗ךָ וְגֵֽרְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ:
11For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. יאכִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ:
12Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. יבכַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יַֽאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ:
13You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. יגלֹ֖א תִּרְצָֽח: ס לֹ֖א תִּנְאָֽף: ס לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹֽב: ס לֹֽא־תַֽעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר:
14You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” ידלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ך ס לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַֽאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַֽחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ:

Except, these are not commandments. They are sayings.

  1. Do not worship other gods in my presence.
  2. Do not engage in idolatry.
  3. Perform chesed or acts of loving kindness.
  4. Do not commit blasphemy by taking the name of the Lord in vain.
  5. Keep the sabbath by performing no labour on that day or permitting your servants of strangers from performing this labour – there can be no shabas goys.
  6. Honour thy father and mother.
  7. Do not murder.
  8. Do not commit adultery.
  9. Do not steal.
  10. Do not bear false witness against your neighbour; don’t commit perjury.
  11. Do not covet thy neighbour’s house or whatever belongs to your neighbour.

But that makes eleven not ten commandments. Usually, the third is omitted to ensure there are ten. Yet the third is more often interpreted as the most basic and all-encompassing. Or else the first and second are combined as one. But it does not matter except rhetorically whether there are ten or eleven or whether the same ones are reiterated in Deuteronomy 5. Rather, notice that there are three prohibitions with respect to God – no worshipping other gods, no idolatry and no blasphemy, three positive instructions, performing chesed, keeping the sabbath and honouring your mother and father, and then five further prohibitions but this time in relationship to other humans – don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, commit perjury or covet.

Each of these prohibitions or advisories is subject to interpretation. For example, the first is often interpreted as insisting on a monotheistic faith. Except that Jethro worshipped other gods and interpreted the Israeli God simply as the most powerful. Further, more idiosyncratically, the prohibition has been interpreted as not worshipping other gods in front of the Lord. But the intent seems clear enough at its core – not a metaphysical monotheism but a legal one. The people must consent to the arrangement. The arrangement also requires their commitment. Third, the sayings in effect provide a contract between God and the Israelites, a pre-nuptial agreement in their marriage. Consent, commitment and contract seem to be requisites.

Take these sayings in the three groupings above beginning with the instruction not to worship any other god (in front of or as first in power -?) before the Israelite God. Do not commit idolatry, more specifically, make a graven image as an object of worship. Obviously, making a material object like a golden calf or any other cultic physical representation and treating it as if it were God is idolatry. But idolatry means far more. There can be no physical representation of the divine for that is oved avodah zarah (worship in a pagan or strange service). But then why is Jethro given such a high status?

Any answer requires a lengthy exposition, but suffice to say it simply means, and Jethro attests to that meaning, that God is the only God responsible for all creation and His creatures that He created, especially the Israelites whom He consecrated as a people and with whom He entered a covenantal relationship. God too entered into a commitment and a contractual relationship.

Speaking of God in profane terms (blasphemy) is also forbidden. This does not simply mean that we should not say, “God damn!” Rather, it prohibits disrespect or contempt for God. It does not mean not arguing with God. It does mean not engaging in a pissing match. That means, as Isaiah said, listening with a lean heart, one that is emotionally sensitive, hearing what is said by washing out one’s ears and looking at the other as a cloud rather than with eyes glazed over as if one could readily see the other. It means to hear intently without claiming to understand or categorize, looking closely without presuming what one can perceive. It means being open to the Other.

How then do we fit in chesed? Rabbi Simiai in the Talmud claimed that, “The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.” Chesed provide the book ends to hold up the Torah, the shelf on which the Torah can rest but is not itself the Torah.  Mercy and compassion are prerequisits for a lean heart, unstopped ears and unglazed eyes. It is God who embodies chesed, what Jews translate as mercy and Christians, grace. Chesed entails God’s love for His people, the zealous love of one person for another and the compassion of people towards God.

The forbidding of murder, theft, adultery, perjury and especially being covetous are all expressions of what it is not to be charitable and kind to others. They are all mean acts. Covetousness is not forbidding acquisitiveness. It does mean an injunction against jealousy for what one’s neighbour has.

That was then and there. The tragedy is always when was there and then as an aspiration has become a lost cause, that we give up on forbidding a covetous life, that we fail to empathize with the other, hear the other and see the other not through either rose coloured glasses or darkened shades. For we must pronounce, Hinaini, here I am ready not only to say but to go, to hear intently without presuming to understand and to look closely without assuming one perceives.

One comment on “Parshat Yitro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 There and Then: The “Ten” Commandments

  1. Cord says:

    Howard youre amazing; to be putting out film reviews and Parshat commentary while surrounded by boxes!

    Wish you were joining us in Mexico. I’ll try and make you feel envious.

    Michael Cord HBSc MD CATPP (TPS) MCFP Supervisor with Mount Sinai Psychotherapy Institute OCFP Mental Health Mentor: OCFP Award of Excellence Faculty CMHN/MMAP : MH and Addiction Programs CPSO Change of Scope Supervisor

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