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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT YITRO
February 14, 2009 – 20 Shevat 5769

Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 19:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 436; Hertz p. 290)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) hears about the Exodus and what God has done for the Israelites and comes to visit his son-in-law, bringing Moses’ wife Zipporah and their sons. Jethro acknowledges the greatness of God and offers a sacrifice. The next day, Jethro sees Moses spending hours and hours answering the people’s questions and settling their disputes. He advises Moses to choose officers and judges to assist in these efforts. Jethro then returns to his home.

At the beginning of the third month after the Exodus, God tells Moses to instruct the people to prepare to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. On the appointed day, amid thunder and lightning, thick clouds, and the sound of a shofar, God speaks. The Ten Statements (Commandments) are given. The people are overwhelmed and terrified by God’s power and they ask Moses to serve as intermediary between God and the Israelites. Moses ascends the mountain and disappears into the clouds. God instructs Moses concerning the prohibition of idols and the proper construction of the altar.

1. Saw You at Sinai

Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their place at the foot of (b’tahtit) the mountain. (Exodus 19:17)

  1. “And they stood under (b’tahtit) the mountain.” Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama said: The verse implies that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted cask, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, your grave will be right here. (Shabbat 88a)
  2. Rabbi Yosef Kimhi’s interpretation was that by the time He held the mountain over them they had already consented and said, “We will do and we will hear.” [He did this] to show His love for them, saying, “It is a good thing you have consented, because if you had refused I would not have given up on you the way I did with the other nations.” (Baal HaTurim [Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, 1275-1340, Spain])
  3. When He who is everywhere revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the other nations as well. At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said right to His face: What is written in it? He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose “hands are the hands of Esau” (B’reishit 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, “By your sword you shall live” (B’reishit 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.

    Then He went to the children of Ammon and Moab, and asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said right to His face: What is written in it? He said: “You shall not commit adultery.” They replied: Master of the universe, our very origin is in adultery, for Scripture says, “Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father” (B’reishit 19:36). We cannot accept the Torah.

    Then He went to the children of Ishmael. He asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said right to His face: What is written in it? He said: “You shall not steal.” They replied: Master of the universe, it is our very nature to live off what is stolen and what is got by assault. Of our forebear Ishmael it is written, “He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (B’reishit 16:12).We cannot accept the Torah.

    There was not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on the door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah.

    At long last He came to Israel. They said, “We will do and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7) (Sifre Devarim 343)
  4. “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Devarim 29:13-14) “Not with you alone” but the generations that have yet to come were also there... And why does it say: “Those who are not with us here”? Because all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created. (Tanhuma Nitzavim 8)

Sparks for Discussion

What happened at Sinai? Did Israel accept the Torah under duress? Did they accept it freely and joyously? The passage from Sifre Devarim tell us that as each nation asked God what was written in the Torah, He chose to tell them the commandment that would present the greatest challenge for them. If Israel had asked, “What is written in it?” which commandment do you think God would have chosen?

Why does the commitment made by our ancestors continue to bind us today? Is Torah (the brit, being Jewish) a burden or a gift? Which midrash is true?

2. OMG!

You shall not swear falsely by [literally, lift up/carry] the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. (Exodus 20:7)

Note: Traditional translation: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes His name in vain.

  1. “You shall not swear falsely by My name” (Leviticus 19:12) What need was there for this text, when it has already been stated: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God”? You might have thought that one is not culpable except when His specific name [the Tetragrammaton] is involved. From where do we learn that the prohibition applies to all the names of God? The text adds: “By My name” – whatever name I have. (Sifra)
  2. In any case, one who invokes God and does not keep his promise is as if he is denying God’s existence. For the point of mentioning God’s name is to say, “Just as God is truth, so is my word.” (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1092-1167, Spain)
  3. The text has been interpreted by our Sages to mean that it is forbidden to swear by the hallowed Name in vain, as for example, he that swears that something is or is not so, where the matter is self-evident – that the pillar is made of marble and he is standing by, and all can see that it is so. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  4. The text also implies that he should not bear the name of the Lord who is his God in vain, indicating to all that he is a Jew and a servant of the Lord implying that he is one of His servants – when such is not the case. This prohibition also includes the one who regards himself as more righteous than he really is. (Or HaHayyim [Rabbi Hayyim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743, Morocco and Israel])
  5. Do not take God’s name in matters which are in vain or false. Do not place an imprint of holiness on things which are totally repulsive, which appear as positive commandments but which are in reality serious sins. Indeed, it is the way of the Evil Inclination to deceive people by depicting grievous sins as the most sanctified commandments. Our Sages said (Shevuot 39a) that the entire world trembled when God said at Sinai, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” because all the most terrible crimes and murders are carried out under the cloak of truth, justice, and uprightness. (Duda’ei Reuven [Rabbi Reuben Katz, 1880-1963, Lithuania, United States, and Israel])

Sparks for Discussion

The translation of this verse found in Etz Hayim limits the commandment to the prohibition of false oaths, but our commentators understand it much more broadly. Surely false oaths are prohibited, but so are meaningless ones. Why? How is pretending to be more righteous than one actually is “carrying” God’s name in vain? Duda’ei Reuven warns against presenting sins as if they were mitzvot. How do you understand this? What examples can you think of?


 
 
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