January 25, 2003

If any parasha is more important than another – and I’m not sure that any is, really – then, this one is probably one of the most significant ones in the whole Torah.  In the three chapters of Exodus that are read today, so much happens.

First comes Chapter 18: Yitro, who is a Midianite priest and Moses’ father-in-law, visits Moses and counsels him about his (Moses’) having the sole responsibility for resolving issues among the people.  He advises Moses to select leaders to handle the small, day-to-day crises that arose, and that he (Moses) should only receive the most difficult cases to solve.  Moses accepts his father-in-law’s advice and delegates responsibility to others; thus beginning the process of shared leadership and the rudiments of democracy.   I don’t believe that there is another such incident in the Torah prior to this 

In Chapter 19, the Israelites were encamped in the wilderness in Sinai.  We are not told why he did it, but Moses climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai and received word from God that if the Children of Israel kept His covenant and His word, they would be his “treasure” among all the nations and a kingdom of priests.  At this point, which covenant and what word are not clear.  However, when the people heard God’s word through Moses, they immediately agreed to the terms, no matter what they were agreeing to.  Some might say that’s when the Israelites became the Chosen People.  God must have been pleased with the response because he then instructs Moses to make sure the people are clean and ready to receive the Law on the third day hence.

That morning of the third day must have been indeed awesome, with the shofar sounding and the mountain in smoke because, if we believe the words of the Torah, God was descending in it.  Nowadays, one might say it could have been an earthquake and/or a volcano.  I believe the Torah is the word of God, and that this whole scene really was the way it was because God was physically in the midst.

Chapter 20 is the Ten Commandments.  I stand when they are read for several reasons:

  1. This was the Law that was given to the Israelites as a covenant between them and their God.
  2. The Law is the basis of ours and the Christian tradition to this day as well as being the foundation on which so much of modern law and order is based.
  3. The laws embodied here tell us how to follow the basic precept of the Torah itself: Refrain from doing to others what you would not have them do to you.   The Ten Commandments make the How-to manual for that project.
  4. The special relationship between us and God is also included in the Law: He brought us out of Egypt to be our God; we are to have no other Gods but him, and we are to not use his Name in vain.  If we follow these commandments regarding our relationship with Him, He will bless us to the thousandth generation.

This may sound naïve, but it seems to me that we Jews have kept these commandments fairly well throughout history and still do today:
At Pesach, at least, we acknowledge that He was the one who led us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  When we read the Ve’ahavta with “kavanah”, we acknowledge the first Commandment as well.
I don’t know of any Jews who worship idols.
On the other hand, I for one do say His name in vain, but most of the time when I do it, I feel bad about it afterward.
Most of the Jews I know, including myself, could maybe do more to keep the Sabbath.  A few weeks ago I began lighting candles and saying Kiddush on Friday night.  I have long had the habit of taking a nap on Shabbat afternoon.
My experience is that Jews honor and respect their mothers and fathers.  When we hear of parental abuse, it’s more likely than not coming from non-Jewish children.
Jews, as a rule, don’t exhibit the violent behavior associated with murder and armed robbery.  On the other hand, our people have had their hands in white-collar crimes, to be sure.
Adultery?  You don’t hear about it much with Jews, but then it’s not something spoken about openly in any group.
As far as bearing false witness goes, I think all of humankind is guilty of that to some degree, whether to protect ourselves or others.
As for the last commandment, not to covet that which belongs to our neighbor.  I personally have no need for anything from my neighbor, but I do find myself wanting to be like people I admire and respect.  If that’s coveting, then I guess I violate this commandment on a regular basis.

Let’s go back to my original premise that the Ten Commandments make up the workbook for following the basic teaching of the Torah.  Let’s say further that we Jews rate a strong “B” in adherence to the Law.  If that’s the case, then it is our responsibility to obey these Commandments to such a degree that we are a light unto the nations and exemplary in loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Some people – and some of these folks are Jews themselves – say we fall short, especially with regard to our Palestinian brethren in the Middle East.  I have two things to say to those critics:

  1. Israeli “attacks” are always retaliation for Palestinian killings.
  2. There are elements among the Palestinians who wish to see the Jews of Israel pushed into the sea – even today!  Israel has the right to defend herself against that threat!  Israelis are becoming more and more willing to give a Palestinian state a chance, however, not at the risk of Israel’s very existence.

I invite all who criticize the Israeli government’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian insurgence to go to Israel and spend some time there.  I guarantee you will come back with a very different attitude – especially if you are a Jew.

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