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Torah Sparks

January 29, 2005 - 19 Shevat 5765

Annual: Ex. 18:1 - 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 18:1 -18:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Not long after arriving in the wilderness Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to visit his now famous son-in-law and he brought Moses' family to join him on their journey to the Promised Land. While visiting, he saw how heavy the burden of leadership was for Moses and suggested that Moses choose worthy people to serve as judges for the community so that only the most difficult conflicts were brought to him. Jethro warns Moses that he can not carry the whole burden of communal leadership by himself, "You will surely wear yourself out!"

Seven weeks after leaving Egypt the Israelites found themselves in the wilderness of Sinai at the base of a mighty mountain. Having accepted Gods challenge to become a nation of priests and a holy people, Moses instructed the people to prepare for a momentous day when they would witness the presence of God. The revelation at Mount Sinai would become a mount of transformation when Israel would become a covenanted nation, serving God.

Isn't it fascinating that Parshat Yitro combines divine revelation with human insight. Israel learns important lessons from both God and the Midianite prophet, Jethro. Both are sources of truth, and both shape the destiny of the Jewish people.

Theme #1: Only United Can Israel Answer God's Call

Having journeyed from Riphidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and they encamped in the wilderness. Israel (He) encamped there in front of the mountain. (Exodus 19:2)

And all the people answered as one, saying, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" (Exodus 19:8)

Derash: Study

  • And Israel encamped there - As one man with one heart. But all the other encampments were done in a murmuring spirit and in dissension. (Rashi)
  • Notice that the first half of the Exodus 19:2 is plural: "…They entered…they encamped…." while the last phrase in is this verse is singular: "Israel (he) encamped in front of the Mountain." Rashi wonders why the switch in person from plural to singular in the middle of the verse. He concludes that something happened that transformed the quality of life when the people of Israel reached Mount Sinai. They became a people united by a common purpose.
    Moses spoke to the elders and the judges of the people. He presented all the commandments in the presence of the entire nation since all of them are commanded to observe them, as it says, "Speak to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel (Verse 19:3)." The people however did not wait for the advice or decision of the elders. "The people answered as one and said…" Everyone from the youngest to the oldest (answered Moses.) (Ramban on 19:8)
  • Why does Scripture emphasize that all Israel answered "as one," that, "All that God has said we will do!" The Vilna Gaon said that the individual, no matter how righteous and pious he may be, cannot fulfill all the Mitzvot in the Torah by himself. Only when the entire Jewish people are united as one are they able to fulfill all the commandments. It is for this reason that the Torah emphasizes that just before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the people stated, "All that the Lord has stated we will do." (Vilna Gaon)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does Rashi mean when he says that the people camped at the foot of Mount Sinai as one person and with one heart? In your memory have there been times when the world-wide Jewish community have been "as one people with one heart?" How can we promote such unity in the Jewish world today?
  2. How do Ramban and the Vilna Gaon carry the theme of the previous Rashi one step further? How do they understand the expression "Yachdav, as one?" Note that they seem to be saying something more than simply, "They answered God all together." What is the significance of answering God "as one?"
  3. Consider the nature of Jewish life today. How might we view the Jewish community as a unit in which each group fulfills a different aspect of Jewish living so that together we are able to live by the whole Torah? What do Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionists, Zionists, secular, etc. each add to the fulfillment of Jewish life?
  4. Why can't one person fulfill all the mitzvot of the Torah?

Theme #2: The Ten Commandments in our Lives Today

I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for you any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy to thousands of those who love me, and keep my commandments.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; 10. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates, for six days God made theworks of the Heaven and the Earth, the seas and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

Honor your father and your mother; that yourdays may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.

You shall not kill.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is your neighbor's stranger that is within your gates; 11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea. (Exodus 20)

Derash: Study

  • Why is the festival of Shavuot called, "the time of the giving of our Torah" and not "the time of the receiving of our Torah?" Because the giving of the Torah happened at one specified time but the giving of the Torah happens at every time and in every generation. (Rabbi Meir Alter of Ger)
  • Each generation must make its own way back to Sinai, must stand under the mountain and re-appropriate the Revelation, in terms that are both classical and new. We recognize change as part of the continuing process of tradition itself. (Rabbi Gerson Cohen)

Questions for Discussion:

Here are ten questions to think about concerning the Ten Commandments. I hope they will inspire some serious discussion in your home:

  1. I am the Lord Your God: Must a person believe in God in order to be "a good Jew?" What are the most basic beliefs about God in Judaism beyond a belief in one God?
  2. You shall have no other gods before me: Moses Maimonides suggested that anyone who attributed physical form or characteristics to God is guilty of idolatry. This would mean that we should not talk of God as a He or a She. How should we talk about God?
  3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain: How do we misuse the name of God in contemporary society? Is this the same thing as making promises in the name of God that you can't keep?
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy: Come up with five things that you could do in your daily life to make the Sabbath feel special and holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother: Argue the following issue: The Simpsons is a subversive show and a bad influence on kids because it encourages them to treat their parents with disrespect.
  6. You shall not kill: What is the difference between murder and killing. Under what circumstances is killing justified.
  7. You shall not commit adultery: To what extent do you think television, movies and the media encourage sexual immorality. How should we respond to these issues when we see them on television and what should we say to our children about these issues.
  8. You shall not steal: How would you apply the prohibition against stealing to the following situations: cheating on your income tax, copying a DVD illegally for your own personal use, and lying about your age to get into a movie or a show for a less expensive ticket.
  9. You shall not bear false witness: Is it ever appropriate to lie? If not why not? And if so under what circumstances?
  10. You shall not covet: What is the difference between wanting something and coveting something? Do you think coveting should be included in the Ten Commandments?


  • Rabbi Meir Alter of Ger - 1799 - 1866. He was the founding Hasidic teacher of the Gerer dynasty of the Hasidic movement.
  • Rabbi Gerson Cohen - Leading modern scholar and Jewish Historian. He was the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1972 until 1986.
  • Rashi - 1040 - 1105. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki lived in Troyes, France. He is considered the outstanding Biblical commentator in the Middle Ages.
  • Ramban - 1194 - 1270. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Born in Gerona. He was one of the leading Talmud scholars and Kabbalists of his generation. His commentary on the Torah is considered one of the most important.
  • Vilna Gaon - 1720 - 1795 Elijah ben Solomon Zalman He was a major scholar and intellectual leader. He was known as a staunch opponent of the Chasidic movement.

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