Yitro- weekly Torah portion
Ten Commandments. The essence of the essence. The words of law, that echo for thousands of years of judicial development. Today I would like to review only three, the second, fourth and sixth commandments. Each of the ten is worthy to be talked about as each engulfs an entire world, each demands time and attention, at least on this Shabbat of the portion of Jethro of the Torah and the Shabbat when we read from the portion of VaEtchanan. I deliberately chose these three commandments and I shall of course explain.
The second commandment basically says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” The fourth commandment deals with the Shabbat, “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 of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” The sixth commandment demands succinctly, “You shall not murder”.
This sixth commandment is brief and precise. Two words that encompass an entire world. Murder is absolutely forbidden. In Exodus chapter 2 we read about Moses who sees, “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Shortly thereafter a Hebrew man responds to Moses upon a comment that he should not hit another Hebrew man with the words, “Who made you a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” We learn here that there is a difference between a case of a murder, that is absolutely not permitted, and a case of killing, that also ends the life of a human being but has a different context. The murder of any person, Jew of gentile, is against this command and applies to everyone. It does not include ifs, buts, or maybes – it is short, it is swift and it is absolute - “You shall not murder”. In Hebrew it is even shorter, only two words.
The fourth commandment that deals with the Shabbat seems to stress the universal aspect of it. It could have been shorted to state “you shall not do any work”. This would make it a personal commandment, every person responsible to herself or himself only. But much more is said, “you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.” The law of the Shabbat applies universally to everyone. It is applied equally and it is similar in nature to “You shall not murder” and again is delivered to us without the ability to reduce it by our desire for ifs, buts, or maybes.
It is the second commandment that may arise difficulties for the atheists or other non-believers for whom the demand “You shall have no other gods before Me.” May be seen is unnecessary, unwarranted, or just difficult to comprehend. I would like to suggest here another way to view this demand from us which does not necessarily come from the point of God being superior to any and all but rather from a demand not to have anything that is superior over us that allows us to move responsibilities to greater forces. The worry expressed here is not for God but those which are not God and block us from seeing the truth by demanding obedience to other forces human or otherwise. For us today this commandment calls for a due balance between the branches of government, the legislative, executive and judicial. Each is important but none is God, none is superior over the other and it is for us to make sure that the balance continues to exist.
The commandment “You shall have no other gods before Me” should prevent each branch to claim to us, or to accept anyone’s claim, that there is something that obstructs them from acting truthfully. “You shall not murder” is truth. So is “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” – it is a truth but only in the full context of the command. When I enjoy my Shabbat I am also responsible for the Shabbat of others and therefore those who work for me should also be resting on the Shabbat. They do not have to be Jews to have this right, and if you do not do that then the essence of the Shabbat is damaged. Therefore the intent to send inspectors to give fine to others who open stores on Shabbat, as demanded by some may well be fine to maintain a fragile coalition but does not even begin to abide by “You shall have no other gods before Me”. The Hardi parties who enacted such law simply dragged the coalition to do bad, they desecrated the Shabbat and nominated for themselves another god.
There is no doubt that the challenges of a Shabbat in a modern state that must also provide emergency services, electricity, security, communications and more, are not simple in a state that holds dear both Judaism and Democracy. It is just so sad that time after time, merely for petty political reasons the whip of legislation is used instead of the pleasantness of education.
Reuven Marko, 2 February 2018, 18 Shvat, 5778