Yitro - Weekly Torah Portion
This week we read probably the most known portion of the Bible, the Ten Commandments. Starting with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” all the way to “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The reading of the Haftarah is from the sixth chapter of the prophet Isiah, with the Ashkenazi tradition adding readings from the seventh and ninth chapters. When actually reading them there seems to be at best a remote connection to these great words given on Mount Sinai. Isiah, for example, speaks of meeting God almighty and his fear as a mere mortal from the consequences of such encounter. As a result, the prophet tells us, “one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” In response Isiah is instructed, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed.” But what does this have to do with the great message of the Ten Commandments?! Is it right to expect that the people will not listen to them?!
The great Greek mathematician, physicist, and engineer, Archimedes is quoted to have said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” By this he was referring to the law of lever that he had discovered. In a world without a moral basis we are like a blind person in a world of darkness. We do not have a reference point that allows us to change the world. We must have this place where we can use a lever of law of moral conduct and core values that allow us to check ourselves and seek continuous improvement. In this respect we should not view the Ten Commandments as if only they exist. In fact they only provide an initial set of core values from which there are built multiple points of reference for human behavior between one person to another, between a person and the environment, a person and society, as well as vice versa.
In Isiah chapter nine we find that the prophet states that, “The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.” Maybe here it is that we first find the connection that clears things up for us. As long as the Ten Commandments were not given to the Israelites they were walking in the darkness, wondering without being able to differentiate good from bad. It does not mean that it was lawless, sometimes they are actually there, but not based on moral substance, promoting moral values, and that are based on a fair deal between a person and his surroundings, between people and society at-large. However, once the light has been seen it is difficult to return to the circle of darkness, even if there is someone who attempts to drag us into it. Once light is there, even if we experience periods where darkness is around us, there is still a glimpse of light somewhere, sometimes near, sometimes far, but it is always there. Even a tiny bit of light expels darkness, but even the greatest darkness of all cannot extinguish a little bit of light.
The portion of the Torah we read this week is named after a prophet who is not even Jewish but shares with us a cornerstone of Jewish belief. This should teach us to be humble. Moses, despite his direct connection with God has a difficulty to rule day in day out. He needs a piece of advice, some light, and that came from his father-in-law. A person who is not really a part of Moses’ people, but nevertheless a worthy confidant. The advice Moses received sheds light on the task at hand and he comprehends that he cannot continue to work “from the morning until the evening… You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” He also provides Moses with some good counsel, “you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor]dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.” Moses has now a new point of reference, a place where a lever can be placed, he heard a new idea, implemented it, and built a better system to serve the People.
We too find ourselves often walking in the dark, not finding the path that allows us to understand our whereabouts. Sometimes all that it takes is to open our eyes that we have kept shut until now and therefore light could not penetrate. Sometimes it is our mind that is sealed from allowing entry of new points of reference that will allow us to reconsider things that we thought we know or understand. On this Shabbat, when we read the Torah and Haftarah we have an opportunity to change all of this. We can reread the words and use them as a lever of change. Once again I would like to remind us of two such levers. One, the elections to the World Zionist Congress that is taking place in the USA and we kindly ask our friend, family and supporters to vote ARZA. For those of us living here, I want to remind that we are just eighteen days away from the elections in Israel. Here and there it is an opportunity for change. Think for whom we want to vote, and cast our votes accordingly. Remember, only those who vote make a difference!
Reuven Marko, 14 February 2020, 20 Shvat, 5780