D’var Torah for Yitro: A Special Transmission at Sinai

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


Imagine the scene: Mount Sinai is wreathed in smoke, the mountain trembles, and God’s voice rings out like thunder. The whole people is standing together at the bottom of the mountain, and everyone hears God’s voice directly.

It’s an amazing moment. But it’s not “The Ten Commandments,” Charleton Heston-style. Ten Commandments is a bit of a misnomer. That name comes from the translators who created the King James Bible in 1611 C.E. In Jewish tradition we call these the Aseret ha-Dibrot — the ten statements, utterances, sayings.

When the Second Temple stood, these statements were read as part of daily prayer. In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision to stop that recitation. They worried that too much emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe that these were the only mitzvot, and neglect the full 613.

These aren’t our only mitzvot. But they are powerful, and the teaching that they came directly from God to us — instead of through Moshe as an intermediary — highlights the fact that these statements are special in some way. What’s so special about this transmission?

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, named after Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro was a Midianite priest. And yet his name graces this parsha where the Aseret ha-Dibrot appear! Maybe one thing that’s special is, we received them when we allowed ourselves to be open to the wisdom of someone from outside our community, outside our camp.

Midrash holds1 that these ten statements were special because God spoke them all simultaneously:

‘God spoke all these words.’ This teaches us that God spoke the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance — something impossible for creatures of flesh and blood. If so, why then is it said ‘I am the Lord your God,’ ‘You shall have no other Gods,’’and so on? It simply teaches that the Holy One, blessed be God, after having said all of the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance, repeated them, saying each commandment separately [so that we could understand.]

Other sages in our tradition2 see the Aseret ha-Dibrot as parallel with the ten statements of creation from Genesis — every “and God said let there be…” This interpretation requires some interpretive gymnastics, but leads to some beautiful ideas.

For instance: the fifth statement of creation is “there shall be luminaries in the sky,” and the fifth commandment is “honor your father and mother,” which teaches us that our parents are like the sun and moon, sources of light in our lives.

Or: the ninth utterance of creation is “let Us make humanity in Our image,” and the ninth “commandment” is “do not bear false witness,” teaching us never to testify falsely against one who bears the divine image — which is to say, any human being, because each of us is made in the image of God.

One rabbinic interpretation3 holds that the Aseret HaDibrot are general principles representing the two main categories of mitzvot in Torah: mitzvot bein adam l’makom, between a person and God, and mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, between two human beings. The first five statements speak to our faith in God and our obligations toward God; the second five speak to our relationship to each other.

If you’re paying close attention to the numbering, you may notice something surprising about that assertion. In our usual numbering, “Honor your father and your mother” is number five — but the first five statements are supposed to guide our relationship with God, not with other people. How can we understand this?

The rabbis teach that our parents are our creators, and stand in a relationship to us which is a microcosm of God’s relationship to us. When we honor our parents, we are also honoring God. For most of us, it’s a beautiful notion.

But we know that some parents don’t merit this honor. And those who abuse their children may use this Biblical verse as a crutch to support the damage they inflict. For this reason, I think we can read the fifth commandment broadly: honor the mentors and teachers, the grandparents, the loved ones, and hopefully the parents, who helped to shape who you are and who you hope to become.

I love that we say “yes” before we’ve heard the details of what God’s asking…and that we answer yachdav, as one. Later in our wanderings we’ll be pretty fractious. But in this moment, we’re truly one community: one heart, one will, one desire. Our desire is to live righteously, to be in covenant with God, to be holy. We say “yes.” What can you say “yes” to in your spiritual life, and your spiritual practice, today?

 


1 Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael

2 Zohar( (see The Ten Utterances of Creation Parallel the Ten Commandments)

3 Sefer ha-Ikkarim, Rabbi Joseph Albo

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