Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 15, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 15, 2020

Yitro (Jethro)
18:1-20:23 Shemot (Exodus)

Yitro is the fifth sedrah in the Book of Shemot or Exodus.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And (there) heard Jethro (Yitro), the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe.”  The sedrah divides into two parts - the Visit from Yitro (or Jethro in English) and the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  The centerpiece of the Revelation at Sinai is the giving of the Ten Commandments.  To ensure a common point of departure, please note that the term “Ten Commandments” does not appear in the sedrah.  The Hebrew term is “Aseret Ha-Dibrot” or “Aseret Ha-d’varim” which may be translated variously as the Ten Words, Statements or Pronouncements.  This makes the English term, Decalogue, more accurate.  However, we shall stick to the term Ten Commandments because of its universality and ease of linguistic usage.

The Visit From Yitro (18:1-27)
The sedrah opens with arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, in the Israelite camp.  He brings with him Moshe’s wife, Zipporah and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.  They had disappeared from the Torah after the quickie circumcision that saved Moshe from death.  Here the text says, “after she had been sent home.”  But there is no previous mention in the Torah as to how or why she and the boy(s) were sent home.  All we know for sure is that they were with Yitro while Moshe was on his mission to free the Israelites.  There are some commentators who contend that this re-union actually took place after the Revelation at Sinai and that it is put here to contrast the behavior of the non-Jews towards the Jews i.e., the evil of Amalek versus the virtue of Yitro.  In other words, being non-Jewish is not synonymous with being anti-Jewish.  In his commentaries, Rashi presents both views without comment.  One reason to accept the text as written is that accepting the alternative view would mean that the family of Moshe would have missed out on the most important event in Jewish History - the Sinaitic Revelation.  There may have been a reason to keep Moshe’s family out of his way while he was working in Egypt.  But it strains credulity that he would have wanted them to miss the events at Sinai, either in his role as a father or as the leader of the Israelites.  Regardless of your view about the timing, Moshe greets Yitro warmly.  In fact, he spends more time with him than he does with his family.  Yitro marvels at the greatness of God and all that has happened.  In what can only be described as a textbook dissertation on delegation, Yitro tells Moshe that he is being overworked.  He then helps Moshe set up a “court system” where lesser judges will hear most of the cases and Moshe will only have to deal with the really difficult ones.  He also tells Moshe the three characteristics he should look for in these judges.  Through the example of the decent and wise Yitro, the Rabbis want us to learn that Jews do not have a monopoly on virtue or wisdom.  Yitro’s departure is shrouded in almost as much textural turmoil as his arrival.  For while the Torah describes Yitro’s departure at this point in the text, there are further details of his leave taking in Bamidbar (Numbers), the fourth book in the Torah.  Yitro must have been a truly uncommon person since the sedrah that describes the giving of the Ten Commandments bears his name.

The Revelation at Sinai (19:1-20:23)
Approximately seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt and six weeks after the Miracle at the Sea, the Israelites are encamped at Mount Sinai, the site of the Theophany, the appearance of God.  Which mountain in the Sinai Peninsula is the real Mount Sinai?  We do not know.  While the Bible can be very specific in its geographic description of some events (at least from the point of view of the authors), the Torah provides little information as to the location of this most famous piece of real estate.  There are numerous commentaries as to why.  Some say it has to do with a fear that the site would become a place of veneration that might eclipse Jerusalem.  Some say it is because we should focus on Sinai as state of mind and not as hunk of rock.  (For an interesting look at the question of Biblical real estate, you might want to read Walking the Bible by Feiler.)  The description of the events leading to the giving of the Decalogue is not a clean narrative.  It will take us several sidrot to get Moshe up and down the mountain.  God and Moshe work to prepare the people for the Revelation at Sinai.  God gives His reasons for what He is doing.  But before going forward, Moshe must get the agreement of the elders.  While God may have the power to make us do anything, He will only reveal Himself to the Israelites if they are willing participants.  Not for the last time, the Israelites promise to obey even before they know what is required of them.  Such is their faith in God.  Once commitment has been reached, Moshe, at God’s direction, sets the physical parameters for the meeting with God.  God will “come down” into their midst.  But the Israelites are limited as to how close they may come to the mountain.  To paraphrase the Psalmist, we come near unto God, but there is a limit as to how much of the Divine we may absorb.  Like a father, God can draw us close to him in love while still being able to keep the distance necessary to judge us.  The Israelites are told to wash their clothes (cleanliness is next to Godliness) and to remain pure during the three day waiting period.  At the end of three days, “Moshe led the people out of camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”  In this verse we see a major part of what makes the Revelation at Sinai unique.  All of the people are present.  God does not reveal himself to one person or to some small elite.  He reveals himself and His laws to the entire nation.  And the entire nation accepts the Revelation.  How we as individuals understand what the authors are describing will determine, in no small measure, how we view what is contained in the Torah.  “And God spoke all these words, saying” introduces us to the Ten Commandments.  There will be no attempt to explicate them since the information is overwhelming.  But here is a list that will at least provide us with some commonality with a couple of comments:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage (20:2).
You shall have no other Gods beside me (20:3-6).

The first two commandments are given in the first person singular.  The other eight are given in the third person singular.  This has led some commentators to speculate that the Israelites actually only heard the first two commandments from God.  Overwhelmed by the experience, they then heard the other eight from Moshe as God gave them to him.

You shall not take God’s name in vain (20:7).  This is not about cussing.  Also, it is the only one of the ten that carries an implication of punishment.
Remember the Sabbath Day (20:8-11).  Compare this to the version in Devarim.
Honor your father and your mother (20:12).  Why “honor” and not “love”?
You shall not murder (20:13).  This is not an argument against capital punishment or for pacifism.
You shall not commit adultery (20:13).  The Biblical definition is different from the one we use now.
You shall not steal (20:13).  Some contend that the real issue here originally was kidnapping.
You shall not bear false witness (20:13).  Perjury would undermine a society based on the rule of law.
You shall not covet (20:14).  This is the only one of the ten that deals with thoughts instead of behavior.

The notes in your Chumashim will provide copious commentaries on the deeper meanings of each of these commandments.  Furthermore, the Oral Law is an attempt to give further definition to the Biblical commandments including the ten listed above.  After hearing the commandments, the text says the Israelites “saw” the thunder and the blare of the horn.  By saying that the people “saw” what we would normally describe as “hearing,” some commentators say we are being given a picture of the Israelites’ total involvement in the Revelation at Sinai.  The people tell Moshe that they are afraid that they will die because of the encounter, but Moshe reassures them that God has revealed His laws to them so that they will live by them, not so they will die.  Having presented the Decalogue, God continues his dialogue with Moshe.  The sedrah ends with three more commandments, all of which relate to the sacrificial rites.  They read like a prelude to next week’s portion, which is a lengthy compendium of rules and regulations.  The final verse has come to be interpreted as a command for modesty and appropriate attire when worshipping God, which stands in stark contrast to our modern concepts of taste and fashion.

25. The commandment that one believe in God (20:2).
26. The prohibition against worshiping as divine anything other than God (20:5).
27. The stricture against making a graven image (20:4).
28. The prohibition against bowing down to worship an idol (20:5).
29. The stricture against bowing down to worship an idol in the usual ways its adherents do (20:5).
30. The prohibition against uttering God’s name for a vain or immoral purpose (20:7).
31. The obligation to hallow the Sabbath by maintaining its holiness (20:8).
32. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath (20:8).
33. The obligation to honor ones’ parents (20:12).
34. The prohibition against murder (20:13).
35. The stricture against adultery (20:13).
36. The prohibition against theft (20:13).
37. The prohibition against giving false testimony (20:13).
38. The prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s property or spouse (20:14).
39. The prohibition against making idolatrous images (20:20).
40. The prohibition against constructing an altar of hewn stones (20:22).
41. The obligation to approach God’s altar with small dignified steps, lest one’s genitals be exposed (20:23).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The breakdown shown above varies from the Ten Commandments concept that most people equate with the experience at Mount Sinai.  In the popular counting method the commandments shown above, 26 through 32 are included in commandments 2, 3 and 4 in the Decalogue.

Reciting the Ten Commandments
During the days of the Temple, the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service.  When Christianity was attempting to establish its own identity, its leaders rejected the commandments except for the Ten Commandments.  One of their reasons was that these ten must be the only important ones since they were the ones recited as part of the service.  In an attempt to combat this misconception and to emphasize the importance of all the mitzvoth, the Rabbis banned the recitation of the Ten Commandments as part of the service.  They are only read as part of the service when they appear in Shemot and Devarim.  The Ten Commandments may be found in the supplementary readings of the prayer book (Siddur) and may be recited individually.

Tanya on the Ten Commandments
Interestingly enough, one of the daily selections from the Tanya that is read at this time addresses the issue of what commandments were uttered directly by God to the Israelites and which were uttered by God to Moshe who then presented them to the Israelites.  The author contends that the first two commandments were those given directly by God and that they encapsulate the entire Torah as well as the 613 commandments.  To paraphrase the argument would do it an injustice.  By quoting this section in its entirety, I hope you will get a sense of what scholarly, traditional Rabbinic commentary sounds like.

“It is well known that the positive commandment to believe in G-d’s unity, and the admonition concerning idolatry, which form the first two commandments in the Decalogue:  ‘I am G-d…’ ‘You shall have no other gods…’ comprise the entire Torah.  For the commandment ‘I am G-d’ contains all the 248 positive precepts, while the commandment ‘You shall have no other gods’ contains all the 365 prohibitive commandments.  That is why we heard only those two commandments…directly from G-d, while the other eight commandments were transmitted by Moses, as our Sages have said, for they are the sum total of the whole Torah.  Thus, we actually heard the entire Torah from G-d Himself; for all the commandments are contained within these two, as are particulars within a generalization.  Therefore just as one’s love of G-d motives him to obey these two commandments even at the expense of his life, it may also serve to motivate him to observe all the commandments.  The Mechilta* illustrates this idea by the parable of a king who entered a land, and was requested by the populace to provide them with a system of laws.  To this the king replied:  ‘first accept me as your king; afterwards I will issue my decrees.’  In the same way, belief in the One G-d constitutes the foundation upon which all the other commandments are built.  But why should the two commandments regarding G-d’s unity be considered the sum total of the entire Torah, all the other commandments being merely an extension of them?  The explanation is based on a deeper understanding of the concept of the unity of G-d.  G-d’s unity means not only that there is but one creator, but that G-d is the only existing being.  All of existence is absolutely nullified before Him, and completely one with Him.  Therefore when one acts in defiance of G-d’s Will as expressed in the commandments, he sets himself apart from G-d as though he were a separate and independent entity.  This constitutes a denial of G-d’s unity, and the transgressor is therefore considered an idolater.”
*Mechilta (Tractate) is a Midrash to Shemot (Exodus).

Why Five and Five?
Why does Moses come down from the mountain holding two stone tablets, each containing five commandments?  Nobody knows, which means we can speculate to our heart’s content.  The most popular view is that the first five govern the relations between God and man; the second five govern the relations between man and man.  However, the plain reading of the text of the commandments would indicate that, based on this concept, commandments one through four should have been on the first tablet and commandments five through ten should have been on the second tablet since the fifth commandment talks about honoring thy father and thy mother.  The five and five division would indicate that the Author of the commandments intended to shroud the parent-child relation with the cloak of divinity.  Father and mother are embodiments of the Divine One.  Traditionalists who have invoked this image lay great stress on the level of fealty that children owe their parents.  What they miss is the duty that this image places on the parents.  If parenting is, in effect, an act imbued with Divine power, then parents have an obligation to show the wisdom, patience and loving kindness that we expect from God.

Why Ten?
Why did Moses only bring two tablets with the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai since God had actually given him so many more?  According to Professor James Kugel, the ten may be a form of a mnemonic with each of the ten serving as a reminder for a whole category of laws.  For example, the fourth commandment concerning the observance of the Sabbath served as a reminder for all the commandments concerning holy days and festivals “and the prohibition of false oaths might bring to mind all other commandments concerning courts and courtroom behavior.”  Another explanation is that God and Moses knew that the Israelites would have been overwhelmed if Moses had brought down an armload of tablets containing over 600 rules and regulations.  The first ten were merely the first lesson in a long series of “classes” that would occur over the next four decades as Moses unveiled the laws of God during the wanderings through the wilderness.

The holiday of Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, is connected with the giving of the Ten Commandments.  The “third new moon” mentioned at the start of chapter 19 refers to the month of Sivan.  The “third day” mentioned in 19:11 corresponds to the sixth of Sivan which is the date given for observing Shavuot.  We count the Omer for seven weeks starting from the second night of Pesach.  So on the fifty-first day after the Exodus, we commemorate the Sinaitic Revelation.  This corresponds to the timeline we have followed in the Torah.  The Decalogue is recited on the holiday.  The actual commands about observing Shavuot actually will come in subsequent chapters.

The Sixth Remembrance
There are six events that the Torah commands us to remember (in Hebrew, Zachor).  Collectively these are known as the Six Remembrances (Shaysh Zechriot).  They are found in the prayer book (Siddur) after the Shacharit (Morning Service) and are recited daily after the conclusion of the service itself.  The first five remembrances come from Devarim.  The sixth remembrance is a direct quote from this sedrah.  “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy” (20:8).  There are many Rabbinic commentaries about the central role that Shabbat plays in the Jewish existence.  We are to remember Shabbat throughout the week and not just on the seventh day.  According to the Rambam, “by remembering Shabbat every day of the week we are constantly affirming our belief that God created the world in six days, that He rested on the seventh day, and that He continues to direct and monitor all events.”  According to the Talmud, desecrating Shabbat is equivalent to idol worship while “the observance of Shabbat is equivalent to the observance of the entire Torah.”  In the days before Big Box Chain Stores, small town merchants would go home at lunchtime.  They would put a sign on the door saying that they would be back in an hour.  In that way passers-by would know that even if they were gone, the merchant was still in business.  So it is with the Jew.  Even if he is not able to honor all of the commandments, when he remembers the Sabbath he is saying that he is a faithful servant to the Lord; he is putting up his sign saying that he is still in business.  One way of Remembering the Sabbath during the week is to take care of your mundane affairs in an orderly efficient way so that they do not intrude on your thoughts during Shabbat.  The second part of the commandment does say, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.…”

People are always asking why things happen.  To paraphrase Victor Frankel, if people know the “why” of it they can survive the “what” of it.  Yitro is one of those rare instances where God does tell us why things happen.  Why did He deliver us from Bondage?  Why did He rescue us at the sea?  Why is He giving us the Torah?  “Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (19:5-6).  God has done all that He has so that we can be a nation of priests, a holy nation.  Or to put it in other words, we exist to teach the world God’s law through the example of our lives.  The laws of the Torah are the guidebook for that teaching.  Being Jewish becomes an awesome responsibility since when we stumble we not only stub our own toe but we shake the body of all mankind.

The Exodus - The Jewish Twist
The Exodus from Egypt has become a popular motif for different liberation movements.  These have included everything from the American Revolution to the Abolition Movement to the Civil Rights Campaigns of the 1960’s.  But for the Jews, the Exodus (the release from bondage) was not an end in and of itself.  Rather, for the Jews, the whole purpose of the Exodus was to be able to go to Sinai.  In other words, we traded the heavy yoke of human bondage for the lighter “yoke of the Torah.”  The Jewish concept of freedom is a strange one.  For our freedom is found in accepting the mitzvoth and trying to live our lives within their framework.

Who was Yitro?  Why is the sedrah that describes the seminal event in the history of the Jewish People named for him?  We know a lot about him, yet we know only a little about him.  We know that Yitro was the father-in-law of Moshe and the father of Tziporah.  He was Midianite.  But we are not sure where Midian was.  The Midianites may have lived on the Sinai Peninsula or somewhere in the area that today compromises Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  He may have been a chieftain or high priest.  In fact, Jonathan Kirsch, in his book called Moses:  A Life, contends that Moses got his religious training from Yitro while he lived with Midianites after fleeing Egypt.  Yitro is actually known by six other names in the TaNaCh including Yeter (addition), Hovav (to love), Ruel (friend to God), Chever (friend), Kaynee (zealous) and Putiel (“the name that tells the world that he had given up his idol-worshipping).  There is a great deal of controversy over when Yitro actually came and found Moshe.  There is also some dispute as to when he left the Israelites.  Apparently he did not stay with them.  He went back to his own people; some say to preach the word of God.  He obviously was a man of merit.  He took Moshe in when he was a pathetic fugitive fleeing Pharaoh.  He took care of Moshe’s family when Moshe returned to Egypt.  This enabled Moshe to concentrate on his mission without having to worry about domestic matters.  He brought the family to Moshe once it was safe.  And Moshe, the great lawgiver, listened to Yitro.  If Moshe Rabbeanu could listen to Yitro, Yitro must have been a man with sage advice to give.  We could all learn from this example.  For if a man as wise as Moshe could take advice from others, none of us should think we know it all or should ignore the words of others.

The Human View versus the Divine View
In the famous opening scene of the sedrah, we see the overworked Moshe wearing himself out answering the people’s questions and resolving their disputes.  Yitro’s solution is to set up a series of lesser courts to hear simpler questions and resolve elementary disputes.  Moshe would only have to resolve the disputes that nobody else could settle.  God must have seen the same problem - an overworked Moshe having to answer all of the questions and solve all of the disputes.  But He came up with a different solution.  He gave the people the Law at Sinai.  In other words, God gave the Israelites the rules of the game.  Since God had provided the rules to the people Moshe would only have to teach them the meaning.  But for the most part, they would be able to solve their problems.  In modern parlance, Yitro’s solution was to create a bureaucracy to control people’s behavior.  God’s solution empowered the people so that they would know how to behave without having to ask.  In other words, God created a system where the people would study and use the knowledge to act in the proper manner.  The people would be independent, not leader dependent.  This view would be consistent with the Jewish emphasis on study, Torah and teachers.


Two young men came to the house of a famous sage.  They asked if they might join his circle of students and study with him.  The sage considered the request, and after questioning them about the knowledge of Torah, Talmud and other texts, he deemed them as worthy of joining his group.  “Of course,” the sage said, “you will eat at my table while you are here.”  The first student was overjoyed at the prospect of taking his meals with such a renowned scholar that he could not say “yes” fast enough.  The second student stood silent and after a few minutes said that he would need to ponder this condition.  He would, he said, come back with an answer in the morning.  That night, while the first student slept soundly anticipating his first meal and study session with the sage, the second student poured over the Torah looking for an answer.  In the morning, he packed his bag, went down to the Sage’s study and said that he would have to decline the offer since he could not eat his meals with the sage.  The Sage was dumbfounded.  How could the young man turn down this generous offer?  The young man opened a Chumash to “Yitro” and read out the lines “and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before God” (Ex.18:12).  Why, the young student asked, doesn’t the Torah say they ate in the presence of Moses?  After all, they were eating the food with Moses.  Besides which all things that men do is before God, so why mention God and not Moses?  Drawing on the commentaries of others, the young man provided the answer.  The priests and Aaron were probably impressed with the fact that they were eating in the presence of such a Tzaddik - Moses.  Those eating with Moses could see him.  He was real i.e., before their eyes.  It would be only natural that they would become impressed with the fact that they were eating with such a great personage and lose some of the consciousness that no matter where or with whom they ate, they were always eating in the presence of God.  By not mentioning Moses but by mentioning God, the authors of the Torah were reminding us that while Moses may have been the leader during the Exodus, he was but a temporal tool fulfilling the will of God.  God, not Moses, is the benefactor and source of all gifts, something which it is easy to lose sight of especially in situations like the one described in the eating scene in this Torah portion.  The young man was rejecting the offer because he was afraid that eating with the Sage would give him a false sense of self-importance and distract him from seeking the presence of the Almighty.  The Sage smiled, impressed with the student’s sensitive nature and academic acumen.  He bid the lad stay and study but he promised him that he could dine with whomever he wished.  The young man stayed, studied and when the Sage passed on he became his designated replacement.  As they say back home, just because you dine with a big-dawg, don’t forget The Big-Dawg.

Deliver a Clear, Unambiguous Message

Before rendering a decision, a certain judge would always ask the person seeking relief if he had delivered a clear, unambiguous message to the accused.  If the answer was in the affirmative (and the judge was sure that such a message had been delivered) he always found for the person seeking relief.  If the answer was in the negative (well I sort of said, or maybe I told him) then the judge always denied the prayer for relief.  A friend asked the judge why the outcome of the case always hinged on this particular issue.  “Because,” the judge replied, “in Yitro we are told ‘and thou shalt make known to them the way in which they should walk, and the work which they should do’ (Ex.18:20).”  The judge illustrated his point with a well-known story.  Two friends, both of outstanding character, were preparing for a journey.  The first announced that he would be traveling in his fine coach pulled by four strong horses.  Why did he need four horses?  If his coach got stuck in the mud, he would need the strength of four horses to pull him out so that he could be on his way to perform acts of righteousness.  The second man said he would be traveling in cart pulled by one horse.  His friend was shocked.  “If you only have the one horse, what will you do if you get stuck in the mud?  How will you get out?”  The second traveler replied.  “You are right, if I get stuck in the mud with one horse I will not be able to get out.  Therefore, my task is to see to it that the horse knows exactly where to go so that we will not get stuck in the mud in the first place.”  As a Sage once said, some people are experts at asking for forgiveness.  Others are experts at looking for the right path so that they can avoid the need to ask forgiveness.

Success in Business

Two friends announced to their Rebbe that they were going into business together.  The Rebbe asked if they had drawn up a partnership contract.  No, they replied.  They were lifelong friends.  They trusted each other.  Besides which, they were men of the Torah and knew the words “Lo Teg-nohv, Thou shalt not steal.”  But the Rebbe knew that nothing could ruin a friendship faster than two friends going into business together, especially if the business did not do well.  So he convinced them to let him draw up articles of partnership.  The friends agreed as long as the agreement was simple and did not contain a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo.  The Rebbe took out a pen and paper and wrote out the letters Aleph, Bet, Gimel and Dalet.  He passed the paper and pen two the two friends for their signature.  The two laughed.  How could they sign a partnership agreement that was nothing but the first four letters of the alphabet?  The Rebbe explained.  The Aleph was the first letter in the Hebrew word “Eh-moo-nah - Above-board.”  The Bet is the first letter in the Hebrew word “Bra-chah - Blessing.”  The Gimel is the first letter in the word “G’nay-vah - Cheat.  The Dalet is the first letter in the Hebrew word “Da-loot - Destitute.”  So the A-B-C’s of success are “If your transactions are Above-board - the Blessings will come to you; if you Cheat - then you may expect to be Destitute.”  The two men cheerfully signed.  The sign on their store read, “The A-B-C Company.”  They prospered in business and in their friendship.

Who Blew the Horn?

The sound of the Ram’s Horn or Shofar played a critical role in the people’s preparation for the revelation at Sinai.  “When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain” (19:13).  “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lighting, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” (19:16).  “The sound of the horn grew louder and louder.  As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder “(19:19).  No man could make thunder and lighting and dense clouds.  Only God could make them and certainly only God could use them as communication tools.  But the sounding of the Shofar is a human activity.  Yes, God could sound a Shofar.  After all, God is God and He can do anything.  So why would He choose to use an instrument that a man might use as part of announcing the impending drama on the mountain?  Could this be a way of saying that God can only give the Commandments, but man must accept them and perform if they are to have ultimate meaning?  When you sit in the services next year and hear the sound of the Shofar, ask yourself, who is really sounding the Shofar.  Is it the person on the bimah?  Is it God?  Or is it the two of them acting in some sort of joint venture?

The Moses Room

In one of his commentaries on this week’s reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentions The Moses Room, one of the meeting rooms in the House of Lords.  Its name comes from “a large fresco called ‘Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’” that hangs in the room - a fresco that was inspired by the events in “Yitro.”  The irony is that the Parliament building was built at a time when Jews were not allowed to sit in the House of Commons and when Queen Victoria had refused to appoint a Rothschild to the House of Lords.  This would appear to be part of an on-going pattern of the world loving things Jewish but without wanting Jews around!

Tenth Commandment:  A Lubavitch view courtesy of Rabbi Pinchas Ciment

Commandment number ten teaches us "You shall not covet your friend's house; or his wife, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend."  Or in simple English, don't desire his beautiful home, wife, dream job, nifty sports car or anything else that is his.

It's one thing not to steal the stuff; but not even to desire it?  Is G-d perhaps being somewhat unreasonable with this one?  Is He being realistic?  Surely He doesn't think we're angels - He created us!  Come to think of it, why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics - house, wife, servant, etc., and then still find it necessary to add the generalization, "and all that belongs to your friend"?

One explanation offered by the rabbis is that this comes to teach us a very important lesson for life - a lesson which actually makes this difficult commandment much easier to carry out.  What the Torah is saying is that if you should happen to cast your envious eye over your neighbor's fence, don't only look at the specifics.  Remember to also look at the overall picture.

Most of us tend to assume that the grass is greener on the other side.  But we don't always consider the full picture, the whole package.  So he's got a great business and a very healthy balance sheet.  But is he healthy?  Is his family healthy?  His wife looks great at his side when they're out together, but is she such a pleasure to live with at home?  And if he should have health and wealth, does he have nachas from his children?  Is there anybody who has it all?

As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own pekkel.  We each carry a backpack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of tzorris.  When we are young, we think that difficulties are for "other people."  When we get older we realize that no one is immune.  Nobody has it all.  So if you find yourself coveting your fellow's whatever, stop for a minute to consider whether you really want "all that is your fellow's."  When we actually see with our own eyes what the other fellow's life is all about behind closed doors, what's really inside his backpack, we will feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its inherent problems.

Commandment number 10 is a piece of good advice as well.  Be wise enough to realize that you've got to look at the whole picture.  When we do, this difficult commandment becomes more easily observable.  Not only is it sinful to envy what other people have; it's foolish.  Because life is a package deal.

Abarbanel’s Questions

Michael Carasik, the author/translator of The Commentator's Bible includes “Abarbanel’s Questions” in his commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.  According to Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari these questions provide the basis for the Socratic Method that this famous Sephardic Jew used to develop his commentaries on the TaNaCh.  A few of his questions are included here for two reasons.  First, they lead us to “understand the kinds of questions that commentators think need answering about the text.”  Second, they are thought provoking and should provide stimulation for the novice as well as for those who have read these portions several times.  There are too many to include them all but here a few to get you started.

“Why was the Torah given only now, and not to Adam or Noah, Abraham or Jacob?”  “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness rather than in Egypt, when He took the people for His service and began to give them the commandments?”  “Why do the people agree to do ‘all that the Lord has spoken’ when He has not yet spoken it?”  “Why was the Torah given with ‘thunder and lightning’ and not in the ‘still small voice’ that Elijah heard in Kings 19:12?”  “Why do some of the first five commandments mention ‘the Lord’ and some ‘the Lord your God’ while none of the last five mention God at all?”  “How can a just God ‘visit the guilt of the parents upon the children’?”

The Observant and Observing the Fourth Commandment

"Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God.”  The fourth commandment is a two-edged sword.  It is a command to rest, but one is to work for the rest of the week.  According to the sages, earning a livelihood, along with family, study and prayer are the way to keep a person from evil.  Among the Observant are those who do not work in the conventional sense of that term.  They spend their time in study while being supporting by others.  They contend that their study is the most important form of work.  But this claim is inconsistent with the text and tradition.  We are forbidden to work on Shabbat.  But study is such a critical part of Shabbat observance that we read the Torah in public and the Dvar Torah is as essential to a Kiddush as are cholent or challah.  So study and work are not synonymous which means that the Observant need to either get a job or realize that they are neither fulfilling the letter nor the spirit of the 4th commandment.

Who should Rest?

The commandments for the Jews to refrain from work and to rest are universal in their households.  No less an authority than the Stone Chumash states “It is also forbidden to allow minor children or to ask gentiles to do anything for one on the Sabbath that one is forbidden to do himself” or herself.  (Note on Page 2410.)  In other words, the practice of “the Shabbos Goy” should be an anathema to do those who truly wish to “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”

Modesty and Attire

This magnificent portion filled with Divine pyrotechnics and the giving of the basic law code ends by commanding us not expose our “nakedness” when ascending the steps of the altar.  In these times of “relaxed” dress codes, this serves as reminder that when we come before the Lord, modesty and proper attire is the Biblical expectation.  As we saw with the royal weddings in Great Britain, when people come into the company of temporal lords and rulers, they dress for the occasion.  Should we do less when coming before the Lord of Lords?

The Jews of Yemen

In 1949, the Israeli government began the rescue of the Jews of Yemen.  From June of 1949 until September of 1950, the barely born Jewish state airlifted almost 50,000 of their co-religionists to safety.  Popularly known as “Operation Magic Carpet,” its official name was “Operation on Wings of Eagles.”  The name came from two Biblical sources.  First was “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself” (Exodus 19:4) which comes from this week’s Torah portion.  The second was “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” which comes from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet who provides us with this week’s haftarah portion.  For the Jews, history and tradition are not prisons.  Rather they are an anchor that connects with our past while inspiring us to deal with the present and greet the future.

Ten Commandments in Public Places

A few years ago, a judge in Alabama wanted to hang a copy of the 10 Commandments in his courtroom.  This was only one of the periodic attempts to place the Decalogue in public places.  Setting aside the question of separation of church and state one wonders what version these people want to use.  We all know that there is a variation between the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  But there are also differences between the versions used in Jewish, Protestant and Catholic scriptures.  These variations are more than just a matter of linguistics.   They point to a different view of the world, history and the role of the Jewish people.


Isaiah 6:1-7:6 and 9:5-6 (Ashkenazim)

Isaiah 6:1-6:11 (Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim)

The Book:  Isaiah is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The term major refers to the fact that their books are longer than those of the other prophets.  Isaiah is also the first of the Later Prophets, those coming after the books that start with Joshua and end with Second Kings.  The book of Isaiah is attributed to at least two and possibly three authors.  Traditionally, the first thirty-nine chapters are attributed to a historic figure described in the beginning of the book.  Chapters forty through sixty-six are attributed to a second, anonymous author.  Isaiah’s name in Hebrew is Yeshayahu, which is a form of a word meaning help or deliverance.  The name is certainly consistent with the teachings of this prophet.  The historic or First Isaiah lived during the eighth century, B.C.E.  He began preaching around 740 B.C.E.  His public career lasted for some forty to sixty years spanning the reign of four Kings of Judea beginning with Uzziah and ending with Hezekiah.  He was married to a woman he refers to as “the prophetess” and he had two sons.  Apparently he was related to the royal family which meant he could address his teachings directly to those in power.  According to tradition, Manasseh, whose reign was both long and wicked, murdered Isaiah.

Isaiah lived in a time of great political turmoil.  Assyria was the leading power of the day.  He witnessed the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the ten tribes.  He encouraged the Judeans not to make a military alliance with the Egyptians who were the enemies of the Assyrians.  Rather, he urged the Judeans to trust in the Lord for their deliverance.  Isaiah lived in a time of affluence and economic inequality.  He chastised the people for failing to care for the disadvantaged.  God would punish them for this as well as their other moral shortcomings.  The Isaiah of the Exile or the Second Isaiah is thought to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E. during the period of the Babylonian Captivity.  His message was one of comfort, hope and a vision of universal peace.  The book of Isaiah describes a unique relationship between God and the children of Israel.  They are to carry His message to the people of the world.  By following the teachings of Torah, they will show the world what God means by holiness.  At the same time, Isaiah provides a picture of God as the God of all mankind.  Isaiah transforms Him from the deity of the Israelites to the Supreme Being for all the people of the world.  Isaiah provides us with the Messianic Vision i.e., the Coming of the Moshiach.  And last but not least, Isaiah is the prophet of world peace.  It is the words of Isaiah that we read in the prayer book each week, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall men learn war anymore.”  The teachings of Isaiah, regardless of how many of them you think there are, are rich and textured.  The book of Isaiah provides us with more Haftarot than any other prophet so we will have ample opportunity to explore his teachings as the year goes by.

The Message:  This is a richly textured reading with too many messages for this brief guide.  That is one of the beauties of the prophets.  They are able to load so much into so few words.  The reading opens with historic references to the beginning of Isaiah’s active prophecy.  There are those who contend that the information in chapter six should have come at the start of the Book of Isaiah.  For us, the most striking part of the haftarah comes in 6:1-3 with a description of the “heavenly court where the angels pay homage to God.”

“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,                    “Holy, Holy, Holy

Adonai tz’vah-ot                                                Is the Lord Master of Legions

M’lo chal ha-aretz k’vodo”                      The whole world is filled with his glory” (Isaiah (6:3)

This angelic declaration is part of the daily prayer service.  It can be found in the section just before the recitation of the Shema.  It can also be found in the section of the Amidah called the Kedushah.  When we recite these words we actually rise on our toes to emulate the angels.  The word holy is repeated three times because God is holy in heaven, holy on earth and holy for all times.  The concept of being holy is a central point in Judaism.  We find variants of the three letters that are its root in other words including Kiddush, Kedushah and Kaddish.  The idea of being holy has to do with being separate.  In following the laws of the Torah we separate ourselves from others.  Yet in being separate we provide an example for the behavior that God expects of all mankind.  The haftarah concludes with a coda from chapter 9.  The portion from chapters six and seven includes a message of impending doom.  To soften the blow and provide hope for the future, the Rabbis chose to have the reading end with the message of the Messianic Vision.

Theme-Link: The Torah portion describes the collective revelation at Sinai.  The haftarah describes Isaiah’s personal revelation as he begins his role as a prophet.  The sedrah (19:5-6) and the haftarah (6:3) reinforce the importance of being “holy.”

Copyright; January, 2020; Mitchell A. Levin


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