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Torah Sparks

February 11, 2012 – 18 Shevat 5772

Annual: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Exodus 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 Joseph Prouser

Jethro visits his son-in-law, Moses, in the wilderness, and expresses wonderment at all God’s blessings and protective care. He offers a sacrifice to the God of Israel and Aaron and the elders join him in a celebratory meal.

Moses has been acting as sole judge for almost all disputes. Jethro advises him to create a system of judges to hear minor cases, which would both lighten Moses’s burden of leadership and administration and simultaneously ease the judicial process for the Israelites. Moses, he suggests, still should exercise personal authority over major cases and questions. Moses heeds his father-in-law’s counsel, and Jethro returns to Midian.

Moses and the people Israel arrive at Mount Sinai and begin preparations for God’s revelation. Israel is adjured to be faithful to the covenant, and thus to become God’s “treasured possession” or “chosen people.” Israel is to conduct itself as “a nation of priests and a holy people.” The people unanimously embrace and accept their covenantal status: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” After three days of anticipation and preparation, the Israelites gather at the foot of Mount Sinai. They witness “thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” that instill awe and fear in them as they are about to receive God’s law. The Israelites are warned to keep their distance, not to touch the mountain itself.

The heart of parashat Yitro is the decalogue – the Ten Commandments – which, oddly, are not given any special name or official designation in this chapter. Later, in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4, they are referred to as aseret hadevarim – the Ten Pronouncements (or less accurately, Ten Words). The popular term “Ten Commandments” unfortunately implies they are the sum total of God’s commandments, a numerical and theological error. The decalogue is followed immediately by a series of further commandments: the prohibition against gods of silver and gold, and the prescription of an earthen altar, constructed without metal tools, and equipped with a ramp to prevent any immodesty that might result if the altar were to be reached by stairs.

Theme #1: “Taking a Stand on Taking the Stand”

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:13)

Derash: Study

“The world stands on truthful testimony, for all matters of human quarrel are annulled by people’s testimony and if so, false testimony is the basis of the destruction of society.” (Sefer Ha-Chinuch Mitzvah #37)

“False evidence not only hindered the administration of justice in any particular case, but also undermined public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system – and thereby jeopardized the very stability of society.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“The Ten Commandments lay out the most essential building-blocks for establishing a community of ethical monotheism. Integral to that blueprint is a court system, which is gingerly sustained by the reliability of testimony. Anarchy crouches nearby, ready to pounce at the breakdown exposed by dishonesty. The 9th Commandment charges us to sustain the project of community by not engaging in mockery or judicial dishonesty, even when we think it is justified, and to demand honesty and integrity out of all who step forward in the public arena.” (Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein)

“Bear not false witness – that is low – but ‘hear ’tis rumored so and so.’” (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary)

Questions for Discussion

Chinuch, Professor Sarna, and Rabbi Bernstein all seem to agree that this commandment is fundamental to civil society, a keystone of civilization. How does this principle apply specifically to government officials? How does this principle apply to rabbinic decisors of Jewish law, called upon to “testify” about the demands of our tradition on contemporary Jews?

Ambrose Bierce points out that it is all too easy to avoid committing the sin of false witness in the formal sense and all too easy to commit through gossip and rumor-mongering, thereby violating the spirit and perhaps even the letter of the law. What is our moral and religious obligation when we are confronted by rumors about “so and so”? How are we to act (or are we?) when we “witness” others besmirching reputations and engaging in character assassination?

Does the western adversarial system of jurisprudence – that is, court proceedings with prosecutors and defense counsel, determined (and obligated) to frame events in the worst and best possible light, respectively – serve or strain the spirit of the 9th Commandment?

This commandment, Rabbi Bernstein teaches, “charges us to demand honesty and integrity out of all who step forward in the public arena.” Who in today’s society (or in recent history) exemplifies such integrity? What are examples of the dire consequences to the public weal when those serving the public violate this trust?

Theme #2: “Inclined to Be Modest – No Altar Tops”

“Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Exodus 20:23)

Derash: Study

“When you build an approach to the altar, do not construct a series of steps – in Old French, ‘echelons’ – rather, make it smooth and sloping.” (Rashi)

“Beyond its literal implications, this commandment symbolically reminds us that he who thinks highly of himself and boasts of his virtues (the Hebrew maalot – ‘steps’ – can be rendered also as ‘virtues’) will thereby cause his shortcomings to be exposed. For by his very arrogance, he reveals his foolishness and faults.” (Noam Elimelech)

“This law isn’t just about clothing (or their lack) or about steps (or ramps). God’s vision fixes on the establishment of human dignity and on the need to create physical havens for healing, regeneration, and quiet joy. Just as a ramp offers a gradual means for steady elevation, so do all God’s mitzvot – lifting us up to heights previously unattainable, to reside in the realm of the holy and the good.” (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

“Modesty is the conscience of the body.” (Honore de Balzac)

“I have seen three emperors in their nakedness, and the sight was not inspiring.” (Otto von Bismarck)

Questions for Discussion

Priests – like other religious exemplars, as well as Bismarck’s emperors (!) – must safeguard their dignity, or risk diminishing the honor of the higher causes they champion and the values they represent. The commentators cited here relate the question of how we approach the altar to the broader matter of how we approach religious expression and personal comportment. Why, for example, did Rashi specifically include the French term “echelons”? Was he concerned with social stratification? With the establishment of a professional cadre of religious functionaries who enjoy sole access to the privileges of Jewish institutional life? To what extent does the military nuance of “echelons” impact our reading of Rashi?

Rabbi Artson explores the ramp to the altar as a metaphor for individual spiritual progress and religious growth. How is the ramp a more apt image for this process than stairs or a ladder (as in United Synagogue’s Sulam program)? How does such a gradual approach to Jewish piety enhance the dignity of the individual practitioner?

How might the Noam Elimelech advise us to esteem and encourage and aspire to virtue, while avoiding pride in its achievement?

Notwithstanding the rich metaphorical significance of our verse, how should Conservative Jews approach the religious question of modesty in dress and physical interaction? If we are not prepared to quantify or to regulate this area of Jewish observance, how are we to explain the value of sartorial and sexual modesty? How do our standards change in and out of ritual settings (in the synagogue or religious ceremonies)? What standards of physical modesty should we treat as absolute and eternal, and which as a function of societal styles and expectations?

Historic Note

Parashat Yitro, read on February 11, 2012, includes Jethro’s advice to his son-inlaw Moses to establish a judicial system in Israel: “Let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.” On February 11, 1961, the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann began in Jerusalem.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Parashat Yitro is named for Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, priest of Midian, whom Moses greets affectionately, and from whom Moses accepts advice on the administration of Israelite society. It is generally recognized that the commandment to honor our parents includes the religious duty to honor our father-in-law and mother-in-law. See Sefer Chareidim 12:3; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:24; Bach, beginning of 240. We are to treat them as we treat our own parents – in the ways in which we address them, provide for their needs, accede to their requests, etc. Just as our obligation to honor our own parents continues after their death, it is proper to say kaddish for a father-in-law or mother-in-law if none of their own children is available to do so (although you are not rendered a mourner by their deaths). Such filial devotion from a child-inlaw is said to provide profound spiritual to the soul of the dead. (See Yesod V’Shoresh H’Avodah Sha’ar HaKolel, chapter 15, quoting the Zohar Parshat Naso.)

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