Posted on February 10, 2023 by Ed Tolman
Our Torah portion this week is Parashat Yitro from the Book of Exodus (Sefer Shmot). Two major events occur in this portion. The first is when the Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro or Yitro, brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to Moses in the wilderness. Seeing the situation Moses is in, Yitro advises his son-in-law on good leadership.
The other event is the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. We come upon the Israelites in the wilderness three months after being liberated from Egypt. Moses is called upon by God to remind the people of what God had done to free them and tell them that if they remain faithful to God and their covenant with the Eternal, they will become God’s “treasured possession”, i.e. the chosen people, a nation of priests among all other nations and a holy nation. And the people respond that all that God has said, will they do. God continues to tell Moses what is going to occur at Mount Sinai in three days’ time and what instructions the people will receive ahead of and at the time of the big event. Remaining pure in all aspects and going to the mountain, but maintaining no contact with the mountain are among those instructions. I should note, that there is also the instruction, certainly controversial in modern day times, that the men, in order to remain pure, should not go near a woman. On that third day, with much sturm und drang, smoke, thunder, fire, the trembling of the mountain itself, and very loud blasts of horns, God descends the mountain and summons Moses and then both Moses with his brother Aaron up the mountain. Commentators note that while only Moses will hear the words, the people, that is, all the people, were summoned to the mountain to receive the revelation. As Rabbi Leo Baeck noted all the people received the revelation, not just chosen ones, but all the people were thus placed under the same obligation, the same responsibility, and were entered into a unified existence. Further, commentators interpret this inclusion of all the people to mean not only the people there at the time, but all future generations, all of us and those who follow us.
At the climax of the Torah portion, at the seminal moment in the Jewish story, God gives a gift, the Ten Commandments, Aseret HaDevarim or Aseret HaDibrot in talmudic terms, the Ten Words if you hold to the interpretation that they were presented as such, the Decalogue from the Greek. As it says at the very beginning of Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of Our Ancestors, (1:1), “Mosheh kebale Torah mi-’sinai”, “At Sinai, Moses received Torah.”. A great gift was given and received.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut of blessed memory, in his introduction to this section of the parasha in his Chumash, tells us that though there is nothing in the Decalogue that constitutes a new or profound philosophical insight into ethics or law, it is the functional relationships presented that constitute a revolutionary movement in human history.
I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of Egypt, the House of bondage. There will be no gods besides me. Why not, “I am the Eternal your God who created you”? Commentaries say that specifically referring to the liberation of the Israelites goes along with the notion of ‘chosen-ness” whereas God created all of humankind. Israel as God’s treasured possession.
You will not make idols or have other gods.
You will not swear falsely
You will remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You will not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet your neighbor’s household.
In his excellent commentary on Parashat Yitro, the late Rabbi Harvey Fields addresses the question that has attracted discussion throughout the ages, even in modern times. What really happened at Sinai? Is it a complete and accurate history or just a story with some truths. Were both the written and oral Torahs given in their completed forms from the mouth of God at Sinai? Are they complete, as our more traditional Jewish brothers and sisters hold, because everything that Jews would ever have to know was presented at that time and was to be passed on as such from generation to generation. Or as Rabbi David Hartman held, what happened at Sinai gave the community a direction, an arrow pointing toward a future with many surprises. We were invited, one and all, to acquire the competence to explore the terrain and extend the road. Plaut believed, as Rabbi Fields points out, that based on archeological and historical research, the entire Torah tradition has evolved over the long period history. What happened at Sinai was that the Jewish people began the process of finding out what God wanted of them.
In their introduction to Sefer Devarim, Deuteronomy, in the Plaut Chumash, Rabbis Plaut and Dudley Weinberg, speak about the “chosen-ness” of Am Yisrael. It is not because Israel is superior to other peoples, but because it is in possession of a special teaching. It is Torah that makes Israel unique.
I would add, that this gift we are said to have received at Sinai not only makes us unique, it comes with the special responsibilities of studying, learning and teaching the lessons that the gift continues to give. Lessons that speak to the relationships of human to human, of human to society and the surrounding world and of human to God. Whether you believe the Torah to be divinely written or divinely inspired or wholly the result of human imagination, we, young and not so young, are required, for the sake of maintaining the ties that bind us together as a people and of that which makes us a holy and exemplary nation among nations, to continue to study and learn the lessons of Torah and interpret and impart those lessons in the context of the world in which we live today, tomorrow and always.