Yitro: Gd Really at the Center

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Revelation at Sinai sits central to Yitro, and the first of the Dibberot Gd reveals declares the fact of Gd’s being Gd, as statement or commandment. [A program note: I dislike the translation Ten Commandments for the Aseret Ha-Dibberot; I usually write the Ten Utterances of Pronouncements. Here I’ll just use the Hebrew.]

Many of the comments of Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban I found also focused on Gd, although not only in the context of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot.

Onkelos gets us started when Yitro comes to see the Jewish camp. After Moshe tells him the nation’s story, Yitro says, 18;11, ata yada’ti ki gadol Hashem mi-kol ha-elohim. Rather than translate the last word as plural—Now I know Gd is greater than all other gods—Onkelos splits the phrase in two, now I know Gd is great and there is no god other than He.

In the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, 20;3, Onkelos again turns the plural of elohim to a singular. The Torah prohibits elohim aherim, other gods, and Onkelos reduces it to the singular, elaha aharan, any other god. The problem with other gods had to do with worshipping them, not that there was more than one.

Within that prohibition, Ramban defines “having” another god as subscribing to, believing in, accepting any other power as significant to one’s life. For all Ramban believes Gd created a world with a natural veneer, legitimate forces of nature, we are not allowed to believe any of those has power independent of Gd.

There may be more proximate causes of events than Gd. As the ultimate cause of all events, though, it is only to Gd we may turn with our hopes or concerns about the future coming our way.

The Fundamental Importance of Recognizing Gd

For Ramban, what seems the simple idea of accepting Gd and Gd alone is the basis for Gd deciding to visit the sins of earlier generations on later ones, should they follow that path, 20;5. Someone who willfully does not keep kosher, let’s say, as part of a long line of kashrut rejectors, will still be judged only for his/her own sins. Accepting another power confronts the person with Gd as a kel kana, jealous or zealous to punish.

Onkelos made the point of limiting Gd’s punishment for the past to those who continue the past’s wrongful legacy. The banim upon whom Gd is poked avon avot, visits the sins of the fathers, are benin meridin, rebellious sons, and son’ai, those who hate Me, who adopt their forefathers’ ways.

In reverse, Ramban also restricts ohavai, those who love Gd, to this one issue, their insistence on Gd as the sole significant power of the universe. For full love, one must be willing to give one’s life rather than contradict that basic truth. It’s more than just denying the existence of other powers, what it takes to avoid being among son’ai, it involves a dedication to this particular fact despite whatever grief it brings.

[It occurs to me there is something remarkable about how often people have persecuted Jews (and others) for their beliefs about Gd. Something in the Jewish idea offends others, and Ramban is saying our adherence to this idea alone turns us into ohavei Hashem, those who love Gd.]

Recognizing the Scarcity of Time

A step removed from ideas about Gd, the parsha also gives us a wealth of material regarding the Jewish people’s relationship to or with Gd. Early on, 18;15, Moshe explains to his father in law the people came to him lidrosh Elokim. Onkelos says this means they sought ulpan min kodam Hashem, guidance or knowledge from before Gd. He repeats the idea four verses later, when Yitro advises Moshe instead to be mul ha-Elokim for the people. Onkelos writes hevei at le-am tava ulpan min kodam Hashem, you be the one to seek the guidance from Gd for the people.

It suggests Yitro advocated shifting from a relatively direct relationship with Gd, where Moshe was the vehicle for answers to direct and individualized questions, to where Moshe was the one who set the agenda, sought needed answers, then transmitted them to the people. Budgeting of Moshe’s time asking of Gd was necessary, because that time was limited.

After the Giving of the Torah, 20;16, the people seem to say this explicitly, Moshe should speak with Gd. If Onkelos assumed Yitro came before that event (as the order of the verses implies), it seems until then they thought they could do it all.

A Relationship of Obligation and Commandedness

The runup to the Giving of the Torah, 19;3, has Rashi point out Gd addressed the women more gently. At Mount Sinai, though, they would have heard the insistent Commander of 20;1, where the Torah uses the Name Elokim, a Name Rashi takes as a reminder Gd judges us for our observance of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot. They were neither requests or suggestions, with reward or punishment for success or failure.

They owe that fealty, according to Ramban’s reading of 20;2-3, because Gd freed them out of Egypt, them from their previous master, Par’oh, in a sense became their new master. The Mekhilta he cites for support could have meant only the Jews had agreed to serve Gd in Egypt, where Ramban moves it a step further, Jews bear an eternal personal debt because of the history of the redemption from Egypt. We should want to serve Gd because of it, not only agree because we must.

The commandment of kavod to parents, 20;12, puts a bit of the experience of Gd in a this-world relationship. Kiddushin 30b notes the word kavod is used here about parents (where it means to care for parents’ needs, feed and clothe them, for example), elsewhere used about our relationship with Gd. Ramban thinks the idea also explains this dibbur’s positioning immediately after the ones about serving only Gd. For children, parents are creators, Gd’s partner in producing them.

The idea leads Ramban to include in kavod other types of fealty we owe Gd, such as acknowledging the person as parent (which I wouldn’t have thought it a big deal—I think he means accepting both the bare fact and all the obligations that includes). Much as service of Gd should happen without thought of reward, Ramban thinks we should not serve our parents for any anticipated inheritance or other ulterior motive.

It’s Not One Way

So much for how people are supposed to act towards Gd, the parsha also has a bit on the other way around. Before the Giving of the Torah, Gd has Moshe tell the people they will be a segulah, special to Gd, 19;5. Onkelos translates segulah as havivin, dear, where Rashi took it to mean a beloved treasure. Some commentators on Onkelos thought the two were agreeing. I think haviv can be a more involved relationship than a treasure locked away in some vault. The treasure matters to the person, sure, whenever s/he removes it from the vault to look at it.

Havivin is how we feel about those close to us, with whom we interact often. (There might be a downside, in that it can have its ups and downs, where we just love treasure in the vault.)

Rashi does elsewhere note a mutual aspect to us and Gd, 20;21. The verse says Gd will bless the Jewish people in all places where azkir et Shemi, cause my Name to be mentioned. While Avot 3;6 inferred a blessing from Gd for those Jews who study Torah alone, Rashi here records the tradition Gd only allows invoking the most explicit Name (I am not going to attempt here to tease out what it means for Gd to have a more or less explicit Name) in the place the Divine Presence resides, the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple.

There, where Gd “comes” to bless the Jews, the Name may be used.

False and Futile

On the topic of Gd’s Name, Onkelos anticipated a later Talmudic tradition in the name of R. Yohanan, Shevu’ot 21a. The third of the Dibberot uses the word la-shav twice in describing wrong invocations of Gd’s Name. Onkelos translates the first as le-magana, for naught, such as swearing a piece of gold is in fact a piece of gold. When the end of the verse says Gd will not cleanse a person who employs the Name la-shav, Onkelos writes le-shikra, falsely, such as swearing a piece of gold is wood.

Knowing What to Join

Two comments of Rashi’s remind us of the value of joining, letting events spur us to action we until then did not think to take. He specifies which miracles of the Exodus brought Yitro to see his son in law, 18;1, melding traditions from Yerushalmi Megillah 1;11 to include both the Splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek. It’s a point in Yitro’s favor, he hears of remarkable events and it moves him to go see what happened.

When Moshe goes to greet Yitro, 18;7, Rashi pauses to make sure we know Moshe would not have been alone. Seeing his brother going somewhere, Aharon would have joined, as would his sons, and whoever saw them going somewhere would be sure to go with.

Remarkable occurrences and remarkable people should rouse us to what we had not until then contemplated, Rashi tells us.

Leaders’ Positive Qualities

Yitro brought up the question of leaders, those the rest of us should follow. Rashi explains the qualities he recommended, 18;21, wealthy enough to be free of the need to curry favor with others, trustworthy enough others will heed their words, and so avoidant of improper gain the leader will never take a case to court if it might lose.

Such are the people worthy of our following, to join them in the good causes of the Jewish people, Gd’s special nation by virtue of our acceptance of basic truths about Gd we know to assert unrelentingly, as part of becoming those who love Gd.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Regarding translating ”Asseress HaDibros,” I would suggest, ”The Ten Declarations,” or its equivalent: ”The Decalogue.”

    Zvi Lampel

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