Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Yitro: The Popularity of the 11th Commandment

Shabbat Shalom! We will begin by jumping to chapter 20 in this week’s parshah Yitro, still in the book of Exodus. This is the part of the parshah in which Hashem gives us the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are a symbol that adorn the holiest places in our synagogues as a common sight upon our modern arks where our Torahs are kept. Though many of us may not be able to name the Ten Commandments by heart, let alone in order.

As a refresher the Ten Commandments are as follows paraphrased according to the translation of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS):

  1. We shall acknowledge only the one God, Hashem, who brought us out of Egypt
  2. We shall not make any images of God
  3. We shall not swear falsely invoking God’s name
  4. We shall remember and keep a Holy Shabbat
  5. We shall honor our father and mother
  6. We shall not murder
  7. We shall not commit adultery
  8. We shall not steal
  9. We shall not bear false witness
  10. We shall not covet anything belonging to anyone else

Though we all strive to be moral and ethical human beings, sometimes we may be inclined to add commandments. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in one of his speeches, “Midnight is the hour in which men desperately seek to obey the 11th commandment, ‘Thou shalt not get caught’”. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is not the first to suggest this character flaw we as humans are all capable of. In Pirkei Avos, the ethics of our fathers, there is a story that more or less goes as follows: There were two men traveling on a wagon. One man sees two bales of hay on the side of the road. He proceeds to pull over, stack them and prepare to load them onto the back of the wagon. His companion warns him, “they’re watching”. Immediately the man who was preparing the bales of hay replaces them as they had been and returns to the front of the wagon. He inquires of his companion, “where are they?” To which his companion points up to the heavens…

This story is meant to resonate with us. It can be tempting to take a short-cut or pick up some seemingly ownerless items along the way. This does not make human beings evil.

This parshah and this parable emphasize the concept of fearing G-d, yiras Hashem (yiras is also often translated as awe, for the purpose of this d’var I am using the translation of fear). Much as the man in the tale feared being caught, there is a sense in our world that it doesn’t count unless we get caught. If we feel there is no one to hold us accountable or no judgment we are likely to behave differently. Fear is presumed by this parshah to be the strongest form of loyalty and obedience. Yitro, the namesake of the parshah and Moshe’s father-in-law, was amazed by the miracles that Hashem had performed for the Israelites. He had a strong relationship with his son-in-law and his grandchildren. He recognized that Moshe was burdened with his leadership role, and offered him advice to prevent burn out and also reduce the weariness of the Israelites. The sages attest to Yitro accepting Hashem. The advice Yitro offered his son-in-law was to appoint men with the following attributes: capability, fear of God, trustworthiness, and a natural tendency to spurn anything of ill-gotten gains. These men would adjudicate over all matters and disputes in place of Moshe and seek Moshe’s counsel only for the more substantial matters.

I present this fear of God in order to juxtapose it with a concept we will encounter in Deuteronomy that we may be more familiar with, loving God. In Deuteronomy we are given the Shema and it’s blessings. We are instructed to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and in all of our ways. This is the abbreviated version but it is in stark contrast to the fear Parshah Yitro promotes to keep us in line and connected to Hashem. While I understand that fear is a powerful force, love -in my opinion- is greater still. We should all love, respect, and honor one another and life. When we view the world in this way we have no need to fear who is watching us and how our behaviors would change. We would have no need for the 11th commandment. We would act in a way in which we would never do one another harm. It is my sincerest hope that we all embrace positivity and love over fear.

Shabbat Shalom!