Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and the pagan priest of Midian brings Moses’ wife and two sons to Moses in the wilderness. He watches Moses settle disputes between the people and tells him to appoint “chiefs” or “judges” to adjudicate small matters between people and let Moses intervene on larger issues. Moses follows his father-in-law’s advice and sets up this system. Then Jethro returns to his own land.
The Israelites camp in front of Mount Sinai. God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, “You have seen what I, God, did to the Egyptians and how I brought you to Me. Now, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Moses relays God’s message to the people and they answer as one, saying “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”
Moses warns the people they must be clean and pure, for the Lord will appear at Mount Sinai in three days.
On the third day Moses led the people out of the camp toward God and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. The Lord said, “Warn the people and priests not to come up or look at the Lord, lest they perish.”
God spoke all these words, saying, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
“You shall have no other god beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and observe My commandments.
“You shall not take in vain the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and accomplish all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord, your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.
“Honour your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit sexual impropriety.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your fellow human’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking, they fell back in fear. “You speak to us, Moses, and we shall hear. Let God not speak to us lest we die.”
“Do not be afraid,” responded Moses. “God only spoke directly so that the fear of the Lord may forever be with you, so that you do not go astray.”
“Tell the Israelites,” God said to Moses “you, yourselves, saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens. Therefore, never make any gods of silver or gold. Make an Altar on earth for Me and sacrifice offerings. In every place My name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”
Undoubtedly, the most stirring, supernatural and significant event in the entire Bible is the Divine Revelation at Sinai, the "Ten Commandments" or The Decalogue as they are sometimes called. These Ten Utterances (the literal meaning of the Hebrew) provided Israel and the world with a quintessential message of morality necessary for the transformation - and salvation - of humanity. When we attempt to analyze the content of these "ten commandments," the first three speak of G-d (the Lord who took the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, Who shall have no other gods before Him, and whose name shall not be taken in vain), the fourth commands us to remember the Sabbath to sanctify it, the fifth enjoins honouring our parents, and the next five deal with universally accepted ethical principles: Thou shall not murder, Thou shall not commit adultery, Thou shall not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet (Exodus 20:1-4). One could not imagine a more finely crafted and relevant moral code for our post-modern, ethically perplexed, nuclear empowered era - and we can only stand back in amazement to think that these words were uttered close to 4,000 years ago!
The one commandment of the ten which stands out as being different is the fourth command, 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy;'
‘You must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations’.
Why remind us of the Sabbath at this particular point? Let’s recall that Shabbat is the first law given to the Israelites after the splitting of the Red Sea and before the revelation at Sinai (Exodus: 15; 25). It is also the first law that we explain to a would-be convert. The Gemara says that not observing Shabbat makes you like an idol worshipper. The observance of Shabbat is presented as one of the pillars of Judaism. Let’s analyze now what makes Shabbat so special and how it binds us together.
Most people know the Sabbath as the day of the week on which Jews are forbidden to work. However, from the Jewish perspective the Sabbath is not just about rules but about joyful celebration and rest. As one Jewish author puts it, "it is a precious gift from G-d, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits." In fact, the Hebrew word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for "rest." The Sabbath is the day Jews can relax, be with family, study, and reflect.
In the Torah, the purpose of Sabbath observance is to remind us of two very important events in history: the creation of the world (Ex. 20:11) and the deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). Both highlight the central Jewish religious belief: that there is one, powerful creator- God who cares for his people. We also believe that God commanded the Sabbath to ensure that his people stopped every once in a while to be a human being instead of a "human doing."
The restrictions on work are stricter for the Sabbath than for other holidays that prohibit work. Leviticus 23:3 commands that Jews to "do no manner of work" on the Sabbath, whereas Leviticus 23:7 requires them to "do no manner of servile work" on the festivals. The general interpretation of the latter is that work can be done on the festivals if it contributes to the enjoyment of the festival and could not have been done beforehand. Thus baking bread or grinding fresh coffee is allowed on the festivals, but not on the Sabbath.
The rabbis who wrote the Talmud established 39 categories of work that cannot be performed on the Sabbath according to the Hebrew Bible. These include cooking, washing clothes, constructing, repairing, writing, making a fire, cutting, fishing, and so on. They also added several other activities that could lead to violating the Sabbath - for instance, one should not climb a tree on the Sabbath to avoid breaking a twig and violating the rule not to cut.
Over the last century, rabbis have had to figure out how to apply the ancient laws to modern inventions.
As with all other aspects of Jewish law, different Jews observe the Sabbath prohibitions to different degrees. While Orthodox Jews often set their lights on timers and unscrew the light bulbs in their refrigerators on the Sabbath, most Conservative Jews wouldn't worry about lights and feel comfortable driving to the synagogue as well. Many Reform Jews ignore the restrictions entirely, but might try to attend the Friday night Sabbath service.
The Sabbath restrictions do not prohibit everything that takes effort. On the contrary, Jews are encouraged to play games, take a stroll, study the Torah, sing, attend lectures, or make love with their spouse on the Sabbath. It is work that is forbidden on the Sabbath - play is encouraged.
We have studied the spiritual aspect of Shabbat in Rabbi Heschel’s book on the Sabbath – you might recall the very complicated and difficult philosophical ideas expressed when he describes the Sabbath as a “sanctuary in time”. We have been given the gift of the Sabbath to give us a physical as well as mental and spiritual break – each and every week. Every 7th day, G-d provides us with a foretaste of perfection. Keeping Shabbat keeps us going as Jews, as a people. We all know the famous saying of Ahad Ha-am: ”Shabbat has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept Shabbat’. Shabbat is G-d’s gift to the Jewish people and our own revolutionary gift to the world.
By being in perfect harmony with creation, with nature for one whole day, we acknowledge that G-d is the Creator, that the world that He created is perfect and that there is nothing more to create. That’s why we don’t work on Shabbat. On six days of the week, by trying to perfect the world through tikkun ’olam, we have a chance to become partners of G-d in the process of creation. But on the seventh day, we acknowledge that we were created in the image of G-d by imitating Him: He created the world in 6 days and rested on the seventh. Our Shabbat is an emulation of His Shabbat. That’s the meaning of the words used in the Shabbat prayer: ”zecher lema-ase bereshit’ (a remembrance of creation). The observance of Shabbat links us vertically throughout history in an unbroken chain of generations and horizontally with both Israel and the communities in the diaspora. In a physical way, we are united by the rituals and prayers, even the meals of Shabbat. We detach ourselves from the mundane and the ordinary, from activities that often divide us and make us compete with each other and we try instead to connect with our fellow Jew, to achieve a communal and peaceful experience. Shabbat is also a time for privacy and introspection. Together and individually we travel to a place in time that is timeless. We reach a place that cannot be measured in time or located in space. We experience holiness and this happens in the deepest silence of our beings. It is a time when we have to see with the eyes of the soul. Maybe this is why it is said that on Shabbat G-d gives us an additional soul so that we can experience the divine presence, the Shekhinah.
The other essential theme of Parsha Yitro is the idea of “Choseness”.
Perhaps nothing is more misunderstood by the world and by Jews themselves as this idea of being “chosen” by God.
During our Friday night Kiddush we say:
“Ki Vanu Vacharta Mikol Ha’Amim” “Because You (God) have chosen us from amongst all the nations”.
We are called the chosen people; indeed we say this every day. Every morning when we wake up, we say the blessing:
“Asher Bachar Banu Mikol Ha’Amim, Ve’natan Lanu Et Torato” “God has Chosen us from amongst all the Nations, and given us His Torah...”
What does this mean? Do we think we are better than everyone else? Are we an elitist society? Is this what Judaism is all about?
I am sure that there are Jews who mistakenly believe that they ARE better than others by virtue of being chosen by God to be his Holy People. So if we think we are so great, one wonders what it is we are chosen for. I can’t help but remember that scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks God to choose someone else for a change!
In fact, the sources make very clear that any person, who lives an ethical life regardless of whether they are Jewish, has a portion in the world to come (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13), and that anyone can cause the Divine Presence of God to reside in them.
So what does it mean to be chosen?
Often, when considering this question, people point out that before God chose us, we chose God. Abraham, alone in a world of pagan idolatry and immorality, was the first to consider the possibility that God wasn’t a part of the world; the world was a part of God. Historians are generally intrigued, and have no explanation for how one people came to the idea that God is an unseen, all-giving, loving entity, that is the source and the totality of all reality. Especially given that this was a complete departure from everything anyone had ever considered to this point.
There is even the oft-quoted Midrash that has God offering the Torah to all the nations of the world, with each of them finding some problem in its content that make it untenable to their way of life. Each nation asks, what is in this Torah, and to one God says ‘Thou shalt not kill’, to another ‘Thou shalt not steal...’ and each nation cannot imagine life without theft, or without cheeseburgers, or without hunting as a sport... Yet, says the Midrash, the Jews simply say we will live it, whatever it says... (but that’s for next week’s discussion).
But is this really a fair expression of the idea that we chose God? What if God had told us a little more of what was in this book? I sometimes wonder what would have happened if God had told us that the Torah says ‘thou shalt not gossip’ (even in the Kiddush room during services!), we might well have looked for another book!
God created each and every one of us. And just as all individuals were created by God, so were all the Nations of the world. And to the best of my knowledge, you will not find, in any Jewish source, that just because I am chosen, that someone else isn’t, or that the fact that I am chosen implies that I am somehow better than anybody else.
To be chosen is a gift; the gift that God gives me. Some of us are chosen to be musical, some artistic, some to be good with money, and some brilliant. My challenge as an individual is to decide how I think God chose me. What is my gift? What do I really have to give the world? And of course, a gift is meaningful when I can give it purpose. To be chosen also means I have a purpose. And if I take the gifts God has given me (which is how God chooses me) and transform into a gift I give back to the world (How I choose God), then I am no longer a created object, I am a partner in creation.
Judaism offers the world the idea that man cannot be insignificant before God, because man comes from God, and is even an extension of God. Ultimately, Judaism suggests that the first place to look for God is in the person sitting next to me. Only when I realize that every person is created in the image of God, and that every human being is chosen, in his or her own special way, am I ready to realize that we each, all of us, have a purpose. And then I am ready to tackle the meaning of being chosen. I am ready to discover the gifts I have been given (how God chose me), and the way I can use them to give back to God (the choices I make.)
And the key to discovering just what we, as a people, have been given is to explore the book that gives us the formula for what those gifts, and that purpose really is.
I came across a study that I believe will help us understand commentary a little better.
A RASHI EXERCISE FOR PARSHA YITRO
PESHAT AND DRASH – 2 WAYS OF UNCOVERING MEANING
Peshat [or P'shat] is one of four classical methods used by Jewish bible scholars to understand the Torah. Peshat literally means "simple," and describes the meaning of the text apparent at face value, which also takes into account simple idiomatic expressions (which, although not literal, its plain meaning is still apparent to the intended audience). It is considered the most straightforward understanding of biblical text. Other methods are Remez, Drash, and Sod, which approach the text with different goals. Whenever possible, the peshat explanation will attempt to retain a literal understanding of the text. Peshat can be considered the cornerstone of an interpretation; if the final interpretation diverges from or contradicts the peshat, that final interpretation can be considered flawed. The Talmud affirms this, stating, "A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning."
According to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, author of Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit, peshat refers to the straightforward explanation of the text, while drash refers to the rabbinic commentary serving as a vehicle for the transmission of lessons and ideas beyond the literal narrative. Proper understanding of peshat reveals deep, unexpected meaning within the text itself, while the lessons conveyed through drash provide an all-important glimpse into the hierarchy of values and concepts in rabbinic thought. When we ignore peshat and instead offer drash, we end up understanding neither of the interpretive realms. Peshat is more than just explaining an unfamiliar term, grammatical construction, or clarifying an odd turn of phrase in biblical verses, it is the doorway to the most profound ideas of God and existence.
What's Bothering Rashi: Yitro
After the Torah relates God's giving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, it goes on to describe some aspects of that monumental event as it was experienced by the Jewish people.
And all the people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking; and the people saw and shuddered and stood at a distance.
Saw the sounds - RASHI: They saw that which is [ordinarily] heard; that which is impossible to see otherwise.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi is telling us to take the word see (in Hebrew 'ro'im') literally. They literally could see the sound waves of the voice of God as He spoke. In modern psychology, this is called synesthesia, when the sense experience crosses over to another tract. Ibn Ezra describes this occurrence as a given fact. While Ibn Ezra, being somewhat of a scientist in his time, considers seeing sounds as a conceivable possibility, Rashi saw it as a miracle.
Actually the Hebrew word ro'im can also mean to perceive, which is to receive information through any one of the five senses. And this is what Rashi is stressing: 'Ro'im' does not mean to perceive as in to hear the sounds, which would be quite a normal experience; instead says Rashi, it means to see the sounds, which is a miraculous event.
A Question: Why does Rashi reject the more natural interpretation here, which would seem to be closer to P'shat, and opt for the miraculous interpretation? Rashi certainly strives for P'shat interpretations, when they are appropriate.
An Answer: While hearing sounds is certainly more normal, Rashi deliberately chose a supernatural explanation because we are talking about the most supernatural event that ever occurred in history - the Divine Revelation at Sinai. Rashi is following a principle of Torah interpretation which is central to a fuller understanding of the Torah. That principle is to see a verse within its larger context. Once our verse is seen as part of the story of the Sinai revelation, then hearing sounds is but a minor miracle in relation to the larger event which took place at that time.
Let us pursue this interpretation further, to see its deeper implications.
The late Lubavicher Rebbe gave the following insightful interpretation of this Rashi-comment:
Our two senses of seeing and hearing have different advantages and disadvantages. Seeing affords us a very clear and certain perception of the world. None of our other senses can give us the kind of knowledge about something in this world that seeing can. On the other hand, hearing affords us a different benefit. Hearing enables us to learn about concepts, abstract ideas. These cannot be seen, but can be understood though hearing.
In summary, seeing has an advantage for things in our material world. Hearing has an advantage for things in the spiritual, abstract world.
At Sinai, says the Lubavicher Rebbe, the Jew saw the sounds of God's voice. For the Jew present at Sinai, God's ideas (Mitzvos) had the same clarity and certitude about that which he heard as if he had actually seen them. Seeing is believing and the Jew saw the Divine mystery at Sinai.