FROM THE TORAH
Israel’s Exodus from Egypt began in Sedra Bo with the finality of the Tenth Plague. In last week’s Sedra Beshalach, God continued to protect Moses and Israel through various attacks, deprivations and barriers. The Eternal divided the Red Sea for Israel to escape recapture and for Him to demonstrate His power against Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s chariots. The Eternal quenched Israel’s thirst with an antidote to bitter water and with water from a rock. He responded to their hunger with the miraculous appearance of quail and manna. He invested the staff that struck the Nile with power to defeat Amalek. In this week’s Sedra Yitro, Moses is reunited with his family at “the Mountain of God,” where he receives and applies a lesson in judicial administration from his father-in-law. But the foundational lessons come to Israel from the God that speaks from the Mountain.
REUNION OF MOSES AND JETHRO
Jethro (Yitro), priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, hears of all that God has done for Moses and Israel since the Eternal brought them out of Egypt. Jethro’s daughter Tsipporah was Moses’s wife, and she had been sent away. She has two sons: Gershom, whose name was explained as meaning, “I was a stranger [ger] in a foreign land [shom, ‘there’]” (Exodus 18:3), and Eliezer, so named because “the God of my father [Eli, ‘my God’] was my help [ezer] as He rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Exodus 18:4). Now Jethro comes to Moses with his sons and his wife, to the Wilderness, where he is encamped, at “the Mountain of God” (Exodus 18:5).
Jethro sends word to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, and your wife, and your two sons with her.” Moses receives word of their coming and goes out to meet his father-in-law. Moses bows low and kisses him. They ask after each other’s welfare, and then they go in to the tent. Moses recounts to his father-in-law all that the Eternal did to Pharaoh and to Egypt on behalf of Israel and how the Eternal has rescued Israel from the hardships of the subsequent journey. Jethro rejoices and blesses the Eternal for rescuing the people from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh. “Now I know,” he says, “that the Eternal is greater than all the gods because of the matter in which they acted arrogantly against them” (Exodus 18:11). Jethro also takes a burnt offering and sacrifices for God. Aaron and all the Elders of Israel come to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before God.
JETHRO ADVISES MOSES
On the next day Moses’s father-in-law observes how Moses sits in judgment for the people all day from morning until evening. He asks Moses to explain why he is the sole judge. “The people come to me to inquire of God,” explains Moses, “and I adjudicate disputes between one party and another and make known the statutes of God and His teachings” (Exodus 18:15-16). “What you are doing is not good!” says his father-in-law. “You will wear yourself out, and the people also who are with you; this is too hard for you to do alone” (Exodus 18:17-18).
Jethro advises Moses to appoint lower judges, worthy men who are God-fearing, honest, and averse to unjust gain. They should be ranked as “magistrates of thousands…of hundreds…of fifties and…of tens” (Exodus 18:21). “These will hear all cases first and decide minor disputes themselves. They will bring major cases to you, Moses. You represent the people before God, and so you will bring those matters to God. By letting the lower judges share the burden with you, you can also impart to the people the statutes and the teachings, the way that they should go, the practices they should follow, and, as God commands you, both you and the people will be able to endure the process and come to your place in peace.”
Moses applies the advice of his father-in-law and appoints the various ranks of magistrates that he recommended. Moses bids his father-in-law farewell, and Jethro returns to his own land.
ISRAEL ENCAMPS AT MOUNT SINAI
In the third month of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt, on that day, they come to the Wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, and now they encamp in front of the Mountain.
Moses goes up to God. The Eternal calls to him from the Mountain and instructs him: “Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and speak to the Children of Israel (Exodus 19:3). You have seen what I did to Egypt and how ‘I bore you upon the wings of eagles and brought you to Me’ (Exodus 19:4). If you heed My voice and keep My covenant, then I shall hold you ‘as My own treasure from among all peoples’ (Exodus 19:5) as all the world is Mine. Be for Me ‘a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’” (Exodus 19:6)!
In the presence of the Elders of the people, Moses puts before them all of the words which the Eternal imparts to him. Together, all of the people respond, “All that the Eternal shall speak we shall do” (Exodus 19:8)!
Moses then repeats the words of the people to the Eternal. The Eternal tells Moses that He will be manifest in the thickness of a cloud “so that the people can hear when I speak with you and thence trust you always” (Exodus 19:9). Moses recites the words of the people to the Eternal. The Eternal instructs Moses to go to the people and to sanctify them today and tomorrow and that they must wash their clothes. They should be prepared on the third day for the Eternal to descend, in the sight of all the people, upon Mount Sinai. “Set bounds for the people around, and caution them against ascending the Mountain, or even touching its edge on pain of death. One who touches the Mountain—beast or man—becomes himself untouchable and shall be stoned or shot to death. At the sounding of the ram’s horn they may go up upon the Mountain.”
Then Moses comes down from the Mountain and sanctifies the people, and they wash their clothes. Moses instructs them to prepare for the third day and to “not approach a woman” (Exodus 19:15).
On the third day, as the morning dawns, amid thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud upon the Mountain, and the very loud blast of a shofar, all of the people in the camp are trembling. Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God, and they take their places at the foot of the Mountain. Smoke is rising from Mount Sinai like the smoke of a kiln, for the Eternal has come down upon it in fire, and the Mountain is shaking violently. The sound of a shofar grows increasingly loud, as Moses speaks and God answers in thunder. The Eternal descends to the top of the Mountain and summons Moses to come up.
The Eternal instructs Moses to descend and adjure the people not to break through to the Eternal in order to see, lest many of them fall. The Kohanim also, who draw near to the Eternal, should be sanctified to prevent lethal contact. Moses responds that the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai “because You warned us to set bounds around the mountain and to sanctify it.” The Eternal directs him to go down and come up with Aaron, and He warns him that the Kohanim and the people should not break through to go up to the Eternal “lest He break out against them” (Exodus 19:24). So Moses goes down to the people and speaks to them.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Then God speaks all of these words:
I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
You shall not have other gods besides Me: make no sculptured image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth; do not worship them or serve them. For I, the Eternal your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon their descendants for three and for four generations of those who hate Me, but exercising lovingkindness to thousands of generations for those who love Me and keep My commandments.
You shall not swear falsely by the Name of the Eternal your God. For the Eternal will not sustain one who swears falsely by His Name.
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy: do your work for six days, and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to the Eternal your God; do no work on the Sabbath, neither you, nor your children, nor your servants, nor your cattle, nor the stranger within your gates. For in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and on the seventh day He rested. Therefore the Eternal has blessed the Sabbath day and hallows it.
Honor your father and your mother in order that your days may be many upon the Land which the Eternal your God is giving to you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not testify against your neighbor as a false witness.
You shall not covet anything of your neighbor: neither his wife, nor his servant, nor his animals, nor anything of his house.
THE PEOPLE STAND OFF
As the people witness the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the Mountain smoking, they move away and ask Moses to speak with them instead of God, and that they would listen to him. They fear that if God speaks with them, they will die. Moses tries to reassure them that God does not intend their harm but that He has come to impress upon them awe of Him, in order to prevent them from sinning. Nonetheless, the people stay far away, and Moses approaches the thick cloud where God is.
PROHIBITED MODES OF WORSHIP
The Eternal tells Moses to deliver to the Children of Israel the following message. You have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. Do not create deities for yourselves of silver or gold. Make for Me an earthen altar for your sacrifices: your burnt offerings, your peace offerings, of your flocks and of your herds. Wherever I assign My Name, I will come to you there and bless you. If you make for Me a stone altar, do not use cut stones, for by wielding your sword upon it you profane it. Do not ascend to My altar by steps, so that your nakedness is not exposed to it.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Yitro
Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Isaiah reports his vision of God the King
and his ensuing commission
as a Prophet of God.
It is a long and frustrating tenure
of bringing repentance and healing
to an unredeemed world.
The Haftarah concludes
with a consoling vision
of redemptive kingship.
ISAIAH SEES THE LORD
In the year of the death of King Uzziah:
I see the Lord sitting upon a raised throne,
His robe filling the Temple.
Seraphim hover over Him,
each with six wings:
two covering His face,
two covering His feet,
the remaining two for flying.
Each one calls to the other and says:
“Holy, holy, holy,
is the Eternal of Hosts;
His Presence fills all the earth!”
Their words shake the doorposts,
and the Temple is full of smoke.
ISAIAH FINDS HIS CALLING
Woe is me, I am ruined:
I am a man of impure lips
living among a people of impure lips,
and my eyes have beheld the King,
the Eternal of Hosts!
Then one of the seraphim
takes a glowing coal
off of the Altar
and flies over to me.
He touches my mouth with it
With this touching your lips,
your iniquity is taken away,
your sin is atoned.
I hear the voice of the Lord:
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, send me!
ISAIAH RECEIVES HIS PROPHECY
He tells me to go and tell this people:
You may hear, but you do not understand;
you may see, but you do not comprehend.
Unless the people sees and hears
unless it has the will to understand,
it will not repent and be healed.
How long will this be?
Until cities have crashed into ruins,
and the Eternal has exiled people.
Yet a tenth shall remain and repent.
When it comes to destruction again,
like the terebinth and the oak,
whose stock survives their felling,
its stock is the holy seed.
ISAIAH ASSURES KING AHAZ
In the reign of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, there was an alliance of Aram and Israel against Judah. Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekach ben Remaliahu, king of Israel, attacked Jerusalem but could not prevail. This shook the House of David and its people. So the Eternal dispatched Isaiah to go out, together with his son She’ar-yashuv (“A remnant shall return”), to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the Upper Pool by the road of the fuller’s field, in order to allay his concern that Aram and Israel might breach Judah and set up a usurper, the son of Taval, in its midst.
VISION OF AN IDEAL KING
A son has been born to us,
and government is placed upon his shoulder—
his name is
Peleh Yo’etz El Gibor Avi-Ad Sar-Shalom
(“Wonderful Counselor of Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”)—
to strengthen the authority
and for well-being without end
upon the throne of David
and upon his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
in justice and in righteousness
from now and forevermore!
The passion of the Eternal of Hosts
shall accomplish this.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Exodus Rabbah 27:2
Jethro acquires his honor
all that God has done for Moses and Israel…”
whereupon he shows how
“The wise acquire their honor…”
How does Jethro acquire honor? First he actually “comes to Moses with Moses’s sons and wife” (Exodus 8:5). Then, after arriving, Jethro says to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you…” (Exodus 18:6). But since he has already arrived, what could he have meant by those words, “I am coming to you?” Rabbi Joshua explains those words to mean that Jethro was communicating with Moses through a messenger, while Rabbi Eliezer explains them to mean that Jethro was sending Moses a letter, in which the words, “I am coming to you” (ibid.), mean: come out to meet me for my sake, the next words, “and your wife” (ibid.), mean: if not for my sake, then for the sake of your wife, and “her two sons with her” (ibid.), mean: and if not for her sake, then for the sake of your children!
Rabbi Eliezer continues to explain. “Moses goes out to meet his father-in-law…” (Exodus 18:7)—these words mean that the Holy One, blessed be He, has told Moses to go out, so Moses goes out. The words, “He says to Moses” (Exodus 8:6), refer not to Jethro but to God, who said to Moses, “I am He who spoke whereby the world came into existence,” as was said, “God is divine, the Eternal spoke, calling the earth into existence…” (Psalms 50:1). “I am He who brings near and puts far,” as was said, “’I am surely God of the near,’ attests the Eternal, ‘and not only God of the far’” (Jeremiah 23: 23), “I am He who has drawn Jethro near and not left him far. This man who has come to Me has come for no reason other than for the sake of Heaven and to become one of Israel; so you, bring him close and do not push him away!” Immediately, “Moses goes out to meet his father-in-law…” (Exodus 18:7). The Rabbis taught that his going out should be understood as a gesture of honor: Moses went out, accompanied by Aaron, by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, by the Seventy Elders (cf. Exodus 18:12)—and there are those who say that the Ark came out with them!—all of this implied by the words, “The wise acquire their honor!”
Exodus Rabbah 27:6
Jethro’s Qualified Opinion
Jethro observes how Moses sits in judgment
all day from morning until evening.
He advises Moses
to allow lower judges
to share the burden with him.
Jethro said to Moses: “Why do you sit alone in judgment? You will be worn out! In my opinion, you should not be doing this.” Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he said.
Initially Moses heard every case personally and established a direct relationship thereby with all who came to him for judgment. By following the advice of his father-in-law, his judicial relationship with the people would be reduced to indirect. But in recognition of this “trade-off,” Jethro was careful to qualify his “opinion”:
“Now, listen to my voice,
let me advise you…”
and what is written next?
“…and may God be with you!”
In other words: “Let us counsel with the Holy One, blessed be He!”
“If you do this thing—
and God will command you—
then you will be able to stand—
and also all of this people
will be able to
come to its place
Interpret the preceding words of Jethro
as his disclosure of the long-range benefit of counsel with God:
“If you do this thing,
and God commands you,
then you will be able to endure,
and all of this people with you
to reach its destination
Moses agrees, then, to follow his father-in-law’s advice,
subject to counsel with God:
“So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law
and did all that he said.”
Exodus Rabbah 27:7
Jethro casts his bread
“Cast your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will find it.”
Are people fools,
that they would release their bread upon the waters?
Rather, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) here is speaking about Jethro, who gave his bread to Moses when his daughters told him about the “Egyptian man” who rescued them from hostile shepherds at the well and watered their flocks (cf. Exodus 2:15-19). Jethro asked, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man?” They sought him out and brought him to their home, and Jethro shared his bread with him. (Exodus 2:20)
Jethro released his bread “upon the waters,” the waters being Moses, whose name means, “I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10), and “after many days” he found Moses and bread, as he was honored by Aaron and the Elders, who “come to eat bread” with him before God (Exodus 18:12).
Exodus Rabbah 27:9
all that God has done for Moses and Israel…”
in the spirit of
“Hear the word of the Eternal,
O House of Jacob…”
in keeping with
if you have pledged yourself security for another,
you have exposed yourself to the other,
you have become ensnared by the words of your mouth…
so do this, my son, to extricate yourself from under the power of your fellow:
Go, humble yourself and importune your fellow (to release you)!”
Rabbi Nechemiah taught: As long as one is a chaver (a regular scholar), he has no direct concern for the community and he has no responsibility for it, but these verses relate to one who is appointed rosh (leader) and takes upon himself the tallit (mantle of leadership). He may no longer say, “I am responsible for my own benefit alone and have no concern for the needs of the community”; rather, he bears upon himself all of the community’s burden. If the rosh sees someone treat another unjustly or commit any transgression and fail to intervene, then the rosh is culpable for that which he did not correct, and the Holy Spirit cries out: “My son, since you have pledged yourself security for another (as rosh),” then “you have become involved with your fellow,” you have entered the arena and bear responsibility concerning him (cf. Proverbs 6:1)!
“You have become obligated by the words of your mouth…” (Proverbs 6:2), wherein “words” refers to the Torah’s instruction, as is shown nearby: “My son, keep My words…and My commandments” (Proverbs 7:1) and “My son, incline your ear to My words” (Proverbs 4:20)! Make it your will to know what to do, since you have accepted upon yourself the responsibility of a rosh. “Do this, therefore, my son, to be rescued…” from punishment “…as you have come under the power of your fellow [reyecha]…”: “…go humble yourself…” in the dust of your teachers, “and importune [rehav] your fellow,” that is, in the royalty [rahav] (cf. Psalms 87:4) of your fellows [reyecha] (Proverbs 6:3)–learn from your teachers and fellow students who are greater than you!
While Rabbi Nechemiah applied those verses (Proverbs 6:1-3) to the rosh, the Rabbis applied them to all of Israel, who are surety of the Holy One, blessed be He. What was their act of surety? When the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to give the Torah at Sinai, the only nation to accept it was Israel. Every other nation that was offered it rejected it. Only Israel accepted it upon themselves to observe it, with their words of acceptance, “All that the Eternal shall speak: we shall do and we shall hear” (Exodus 24:7)! Therefore was it apt for the Prophet to remind them, “Hear (give heed to) the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob…” (Jeremiah 2:4), and if not, then you shall be punished for defaulting on your pledge as security: “My son, if you have pledged yourself security for another, you have exposed yourself to the other, you have become ensnared (obligated!) by the words of your mouth…” (Proverbs 6:1-2)!
Another explanation of the words, “Hear the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob…” (Jeremiah 2:4): It may be compared to a king who entrusted to his servants two precious glass vessels, reminding them to be careful with them because of their value. But before the servant carrying them could enter the palace, a calf standing by the palace gate butted the servant and one of the glasses broke. The servant stood trembling before the king. “Why are you trembling?” asked the king. “A calf butted me and broke one of the two glasses!” “In that case,” said the king, “remember what happened and be careful with the other glass!” Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: Two cups you filled for Me at Sinai, “We shall do” and “We shall hear” (cf. Exodus 24:7); you broke “We shall do” when you made the golden calf; be careful with “We shall hear!” With that in mind did the Prophet warn, “Hear the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob…” (Jeremiah 2:4).
Another explanation relates the words of Jeremiah to those of another Prophet, “Hearken, and your life shall be saved” (Isaiah 55:3)! How fortunate are Israel that He should thus favor them! To wit, if a person should fall from the roof of a house, all of his body would suffer. The physician who attends him would have to put a cast on his head, casts on his arms, casts on his legs, casts on all parts of him, until he is completely covered with casts. I, on the other hand, treat the ears only, of all 248 limbs of the body, so that while the rest of the body is besmirched with transgressions, the ear hears and the entire body is saved, as the Prophet taught, “Hearken, and your life shall be saved” (Isaiah 55:3), and so the other said, “Hear the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob…” (Jeremiah 2:4)! Thus you find with Jethro, who, because of his “hearing all that God did for Moses and Israel…” (Exodus 18:1) in the spirit of “hearing the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob…” (Jeremiah 2:4), has drawn near and become one of Israel and thereby gained life!
Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 1
The Torah is Open to All
Mount Sinai was in the wilderness. Why was the Torah given so openly as in the wilderness, in unclaimed territory? If it had been given in the Land of Israel, they might have said to the other nations: you have no portion in it. Therefore it was given in the wilderness, in an open, unclaimed place, so that anyone who desires to receive it can come and receive it.
Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 2
“Upon the Wings of Eagles”
When Israel encamped at Sinai, the Eternal described to Moses how He brought the people from Egypt safely to Mount Sinai: “I bore you upon the wings of eagles and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4)!
How is the eagle different from all other birds? Other birds carry their children between their feet because they are afraid that another bird will attack them from behind. But the eagle, who carries his children upon his wings, fears only that a man might shoot an arrow at him, so he thinks it better that the arrow reach him rather than his child.
Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 30
The Greater Shofar
“At the sounding of the ram’s horn they may go up upon the Mountain.”
Rabbi Chananiah ben Dosa teaches: No part of the ram that was created at dusk of the Sabbath of Creation went to waste…its left horn was blown on Mount Sinai…and its right horn, which was larger than its left horn, will be blown in the time to come, as was said by the Prophet: “On that day a great shofar shall be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and the outcasts in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Eternal at the Holy Mountain of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13).
Exodus Rabbah 28:3
Who is speaking?
Moses dutifully relays to the people the instructions that the Eternal provides for being ready for Revelation on the third day. These include setting bounds around the Mountain to prevent the people from touching it (Exodus 19:10-15). Then Moses goes back up the Mountain at God’s command (Exodus 19:20). There the Eternal commands Moses to go down and warn the people not to break through (Exodus 19:21). But Moses reminds the Eternal that the people cannot break through because of the previous warning of setting bounds around the Mountain (Exodus 19:23). Finally, the Eternal commands Moses to go down and come back with Aaron (Exodus 19:24). Moses goes down to the people and speaks to them (Exodus 19:25). Then God delivers the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1).
What is going on here between God and Moses?
When Moses comes back up the Mountain at God’s command (Exodus 19:20), God wants to speak the Ten Commandments directly to the people. But the Holy One, blessed be He, considers, “How can I do this when Moses is on the Mountain? If I open the heavens and say, ‘I am the Eternal your God’ (cf. Exodus 20:2), Israel will wonder, ‘Who spoke? The Holy One, blessed be He, or Moses?’ So let Moses descend with the command to bring up Aaron, and while he is engaged in it, I will declare, ‘I am the Eternal your God!’” This is what God did: As soon as Moses went down to the people, we have God declaring directly to the people, “I am the Eternal your God…” (Exodus 20:2). While Moses is with the people, there is no question that God is speaking!
Exodus Rabbah 28:4
All at once
“Then God speaks all of these words…”
It would have been sufficient to say “these words”—
Why “all of these words?”
It means that He spoke all of them at once in one single moment!
Even opposites He does together:
“The Eternal brings death and gives life,
brings down to She’ol and brings up!”
(I Samuel 2:6)
“Forming light and creating darkness,
making peace and bringing forth evil—
I, the Eternal, do all of these!”
“If a man was bitten by a snake,
he would look at the bronze serpent
that the Eternal commanded Moses to make,
and he would be cured!”
He overturns things, then returns them:
“Turning death’s shadow to morning,
darkening day to night—
the Eternal is His Name!”
“You were taken from the dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
“Moses’s staff turned into a snake,
then the snake turned back to a staff.”
“The water of the Nile was turned to blood,
then the blood returned to water.”
“The Sea was turned to dry land,
then the land returned to the Sea.”
“Miriam was as one dead with tsara’at,
and then she was alive.”
The woman in childbirth,
those who journey on the sea,
those who travel through the wilderness,
those who languish in prison—
this one in the east, that one in the west,
he in the north, and she in the south—
He hears the cries of all of them
Opposites He commands together:
“You shall do no work on the Sabbath…”
“This is the burnt offering for the Sabbath…”
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife…”
“Be intimate with the wife of your deceased childless brother…”
Yes, all of them together:
“Then God speaks all of these words…”
Exodus Rabbah 28:6
All from Sinai
“Then God speaks all of these words…” (Exodus 20:1):
not just “these words,” but the entirety of these words!
Said Rabbi Isaac: What the Prophets eventually would prophesy in each and every generation they received from Mount Sinai. Thus Moses says to Israel years later, when he reassures them, that the covenant is made “with one who is here with us standing today before the Lord our God and with one who is not here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:14): Only the words “with us today” are written in the second part in order to indicate the persons who are yet to be created, who lack actuality and therefore “standing” is not said of them. For although they did not exist at that time, each and every one received his own.
This is exemplified in, “A Pronouncement, the word of the Lord to Israel in the hand of Malachi” (Malachi 1:1). It does not say, “In the days of Malachi,” but “In the hand of Malachi”, for the Prophecy was already in his hand from Mount Sinai, but until that moment he was not permitted to prophesy.
Similarly, Isaiah said, “From the time of its existing I was there” (Isaiah 48:16): The Prophet is saying that from the time the Torah was given at Sinai, I was there and received this Prophecy, “but,” he continues, “now the Lord God has sent me together with His spirit”: Until now he did not have permission to prophesy.
Not only did all the Prophets receive their Prophecy from Sinai, but also the Sages who arose in each and every generation, each and every one of them received his from Sinai.
Exodus Rabbah 29:3
Israel owes God His Divinity
Said Rabbi Toviah son of Rabbi Isaac: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 20:2) means that I brought you out of the land of Egypt on the condition that you should accept My Divinity over you! (Otherwise, the pronoun your would be unnecessarily limiting, since the Eternal is God of all!)
Mirkin Commentary: This explanation of the opening words of the Ten Commandments addresses the problem of why they would seem to limit God’s Divinity to be over Israel alone instead of acknowledging His Divinity over the entire world. The midrashic solution is found in the juxtaposition of “who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” to “I am the Eternal your God”: You are obligated to accept My Dvinity over you “because I [more literal than “who”] brought you out from the land of Egypt…,” while the other peoples are not so obligated!
Another Interpretation: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” may be likened to the relationship between a princess who was captured by outlaws and the king who liberated her. After the rescue the king wanted to arrange for her to become the wife of an eligible man. “What would you give me for this?” she asked the king. He said to her: “Is it not enough that I redeemed you from the hand of outlaws?!”
Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 5
Benefits precede loyalty
“I am the Eternal your God…” (Exodus 20:2)
The Ten Commandments imply
that the Eternal will reign over us,
leading to the question:
Why were the Ten Commandments not said at the beginning of the Torah?
The answer may be likened to one who first enters a realm
and says to its inhabitants,
“I shall rule over you!”
They ask him,
“What benefit have you provided us
that you should rule over us?”
So he built a wall for them,
brought in water,
and defended them in war,
after which he said again,
“I shall rule over you!”
This time they responded:
So the Eternal
brought Israel out of Egypt,
divided the sea for them,
brought down manna,
prepared the quail,
and assured their victory
Only then could He say,
“I shall rule over you,”
and they would answer,
Exodus Rabbah 29:5
Another Interpretation of
“I am the Eternal your God” (Exodus 20:2):
Said Rabbi Abbahu: This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood. He rules, but he may have a father, son or a brother. In contrast the Holy One, blessed be He, is saying here by lack of qualification: I am different!
“Thus says the Eternal…”
“I am First”—I do not have a father.
“I am Last”—I do not have a son,
“and besides Me there is no other God”—I do not have a brother!
Midrash on Psalms 8:3-4
Children as Guarantors
“My son, if you have stood surety for your fellow…
you have been trapped by the words of your mouth…” (Proverbs 6:1)
“From the mouths of infants and sucklings,
You have founded strength…” (Psalms 8:3)
These verses speak about Israel at the time of the Ten Commandments.
When the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to give the Torah to Israel, He said to them, “Provide Me guarantors that you will uphold the Torah.” They said to Him, “Let our ancestors be our guarantors.” He said to them, “By your life, they are already indebted to Me; instead give me guarantors who are not indebted to Me.”
This may be likened to one who needed to borrow. They told him, “Bring a guarantor and borrow however much you need.” He went and brought one who was already indebted to the lender. The lender said to him, “You brought one who is indebted to me; would that he could stand on his own! Go and bring someone who is not indebted to me, then take what you seek.”
They asked Him, “Then who are those who are not indebted to You?” He answered them, “The children,” whereupon they brought the children who were still in their mothers’ wombs and from their mothers’ breasts, and their mothers’ bellies became like glass so that the children could see the Holy One, blessed be He, from inside their mothers’ bellies and speak with Him. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, “You are standing surety for your parents, such that I give them the Torah so that they will uphold it, but if they do not uphold it, you will be seized on their account.” The children answered, “Yes.”
He said to them, “I the Eternal am your God…” (Exodus 20:2). They answered, “Yes.” He said to them, “You shall have no other gods…” (Exodus 20:3). They answered, “Yes.” And for each and every commandment they answered, “Yes” for the positive commandments and “No” for the negative commandments.
He said to the children, “By your word do I give the Torah,” as was said, “From the mouths of infants and sucklings, You have founded strength” (Psalms 8:3), “strength” meaning Torah, as was said, “The Eternal gives strength to His people…” (Psalms 29:11).
Midrash Psalms 68:9
The Worthiness of Sinai
Rabbi Nathan teaches: When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to give the Torah to Israel, all of the mountains presented their qualifications to be chosen as the place. Lofty Mount Tabor argued: Upon me should the Shechina reside because I am the tallest of the mountains, so tall that the waters of the Flood did not cover me! Mount Carmel argued: Upon me should the Shechina reside because I was split in half during the Exodus so that Moses and the Children of Israel could cross the Sea upon me! Said the Holy One, blessed be He, all of you have disqualified yourselves because of your arrogance.
But the Holy One, blessed be He, consoled those mountains against their disappointment. He granted Mount Tabor the honor of providing salvation to Israel during the days of Deborah, who ordered Barak in the name of the Eternal, “Go, march up to Mount Tabor…and I will deliver Sisera and his army into your hands” (Judges 4:6-7)! He chose Mount Carmel for the victory of Elijah over the prophets of Baal when King Ahab “assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel” (I Kings 18:20)!
Then He announced His choice of Sinai
as the mountain from which He would give the Torah to Israel.
“The earth trembled…the mountains quaked [nazelu]
before the Eternal, This One of Sinai [Zeh Sinai],
before [mip’ney] the Eternal, the God of Israel!”
All of the mountains began rumbling and objecting, as was said, “The mountains cried [nazelu, ‘dripped’] before the Eternal, ‘this Sinai [zeh Sinai]? representing [mip’ney] the Eternal, the God of Israel?’” (Judges 5:5) Said the Holy One, blessed be He: Why do all of you join together in disparaging Sinai? Not one of you is without blemish! “Why are you envious [teratzdoon], O jagged heights, against the mountain that God desires to inhabit…?” (Psalms 68:17)—Interpret: Why do you run to judge [tarutz doon]…the mountain that God desires to inhabit?
“I dwell in a high and holy place
together with [v’et] the contrite and humble of spirit…”
It is only Sinai that I choose, because it is humbler than all of you, as is written, “I dwell in a high and holy place and that which is [v’et] contrite and humble of spirit” (Isaiah 57:15), and “Though high is the Eternal, He regards the lowly, and He is acquainted with the haughty only from a distance” (Psalms 138:6).
What is the origin of Sinai?
Said Rabbi Yosi: It was detached from Mount Moriah, like challah is taken from dough, from the place where Isaac our Father was bound. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: Since Isaac their Father was bound upon it, it is appropriate for his children to receive the Torah upon it!
Then what is its future?
“It shall come to pass in the end of days
that the mountain of the Eternal’s House
shall be established as the first of the mountains
and shall be exalted above the hills,
and all nations shall flow to it.”
In the future it will return to its original place: “It shall come to pass in the end of days that the mountain of the Eternal’s House shall be re-established upon the first of the mountains…” (Isaiah 2:2a)! And, in addition, “all nations shall flow to it” (Isaiah 2:2b): What Sinai is to the mountains, Moriah shall become to the nations!
Talmud Menachot 29b
Exponent of Sinai
Rav Judah reported that Rav said: When Moses ascended to the Height, he saw the Holy One blessed be He sitting and attaching crowns to letters. He said before Him, “Master of the universe, for what purpose are You doing this?” He said to him, “A man will arise several generations in the future, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will derive from all of these marks mounds and mounds of laws.” He said before Him, “Master of the universe, show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around and look behind you,” (look to the unseen future).
Moses, finding himself in a Talmudic academy, went over to the benches and sat in the eighth row, but he didn’t understand what they were saying and he became discouraged. Then, on one particular matter Rabbi Akiba’s students asked him, “Rabbi, whence do we derive this law?” The Rabbi answered, “It is a halacha to Moses from Sinai*,” and Moses felt much better.
*This phrase usually justifies a halacha (law) that is asserted without explicit derivation from the Written Torah, a default to attribute the halacha to God through Moses without the usual midrashic inference from the Torah text. The implication of its use in this aggadah is that Moses was frustrated from trying to understand the Rabbinic derivations that had preceded, thereby highlighting the relative brilliance of the Rabbis and Rabbi Akiba in particular. Then, when they came to a halacha which the Rabbis failed to tie to the Torah and defaulted to attributing it to Moses without any other explanation, Moses was flattered to be credited with a halacha and relieved that, for that halacha at least, he did not need to struggle to understand Rabbi Akiba.
Moses returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said before Him, “Master of the Universe, You have a man like this, yet You give the Torah through me?!” God responded, “Restrain yourself, this is what I have decided.” Then Moses said before Him, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah; now show me his Reward.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He turned around to look behind him and he saw them weighing Rabbi Akiba’s flesh in the market. (The Romans executed Rabbi Akiba by flaying.) Moses said before Him, “Master of the Universe, that is Torah, and this is its Reward?!” He responded, “Quiet! Thus have I decided.”
Song of Songs Rabbah 1:57
Israel Caught Sleeping
“…On the third day
the Eternal will descend
in the sight of all the people…”
“It was on the third day,
when it was morning
and there was thunder and lightning…
that Moses brought the people
out of the camp
to meet God…”
“While the king is in his bed,
my perfume gives forth its fragrance.
A garland of myrrh is my beloved to me,
as he sleeps between my breasts.”
(Song of Songs 1:12-13)
Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya taught: “While the king is in his bed” – while the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, would otherwise be “in His bed” in heaven (i.e., when it is still the morning), on this particular morning He has already arrived, as was said: “It was on the third day, but it was still morning (earlier than expected!)…” (Exodus 19:16).
This may be compared to a king who decreed, “On such-and-such a day I shall enter the land,” but the residents of the land slept all through the night (and early morning). When the king entered, since he found them still sleeping, he set over them criers blowing horns and shofar, and the local governor bestirred them to greet the king, and the king went before them until he reached his palace.
So did the Holy One, blessed be He, arrive earlier than expected, as is written, “On the third day the Eternal will descend in the sight of all the people…” (Exodus 19:11), and it was written, “It was on the third day, but while it was still morning” (Exodus 19:16). The Israelites slept all that night (and into the morning) because sleep on a holiday is pleasant, and the night was short! Rabbi Yudan taught: Even a flea did not bite them!
When the Holy One, blessed be He, entered, since He found them sleeping, He began to set over them criers. That is what is written: “It was on the third day, while it was still morning, there was thunder and lightning...” (Exodus 19:16), and Moses bestirred Israel and brought them out to greet the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. That is what is written: “Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God” (Exodus 19:17), and the Holy One, blessed be He, went before them until He reached Mount Sinai, as is written: “All of Mount Sinai was smoke.” (Exodus 19:18)
Rabbi Isaac observed: For that they were rebuked by Isaiah: “Why have I come, and there is no man? Called, and no one answers? Is My power insufficient for redemption” (Isaiah 50:8)?!
Talmud Shabbat 88a
Words for All
“The Lord provides a word;
they produce a great host of tidings!”
From this verse Rabbi Yochanan inferred: Every word that came forth from the mouth of the Mighty One was divided into seventy languages.
Similarly, the School of Rabbi Ishmael considers the Prophet:
“’Surely My word is like fire,’ says the Eternal,
‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces!’”
But they read it, “The Rock breaks the hammer into pieces!”: Just as the hammer is divided into many sparks by the rock, so was every word that came out of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, divided into seventy languages!
Her Lover, His Teacher
And even as I say that Torah is something that comes out of a box and is seen slightly and then is quickly hidden, yet when this happens, it happens only for those who are familiar with it and who are recognized by it. This may be likened to a beloved who is pleasing when seen but who is hidden within her house and has a single lover unknown to others. That lover, out of the love that he feels for her, passes the door of her house frequently, setting his eye on each side. She knows that this lover visits the door of her house regularly. What does she do? She opens the door a little while remaining hidden in her house yet revealing her face just a little to her lover and just as quickly covering it up. No one nearby would see or glimpse, only the lover himself, who would be deeply moved and totally drawn in his feelings towards her; and he knows that out of the love that she feels towards him was she revealed to him for a moment as an intimacy with him.
Thus it is for the Torah: It is revealed only to its lover. The Torah knows that the heart of the sage visits the door of her house every day. What does she do? Her face is revealed to him from inside her chamber, she provides him an intimation, and just as quickly returns to her place and is once again hidden. No one around him knows or sees except he himself, and his feelings go out totally towards her. In this way the Torah is revealed and concealed, moving in love to her lover to be lovingly intimate with him….
“Wisdom has built her house…
she sends word from the heights:
‘Let whoever is wanting of knowledge
come in here, eat my bread, drink my wine;
abandon ignorance and live,
and go in the way of understanding!’”
Here Torah says to the one with whom she strives (“sending word from the heights”), “Say to the unlearned that he should draw near here and I will communicate with him,” as is written, “‘Let whoever is wanting of knowledge enter here!’” To the ignorant she says, “‘Come, eat my bread, and drink the wine I have mixed (the nourishment of Torah that I set out for you); abandon ignorance for the fullest life, advance in the way of understanding.’” (Proverbs 9:1-6) The unlearned draws near to her, starting to speak preliminary words with her from behind a curtain that separates him, until he sees little by little—that is the level of interpretation (drasha). Following that, she speaks with him from behind a thin sheet enigmatic words—that is narrative (aggadah). After he is familiar with her, she is revealed to him face-to-face and she discusses with him all of her hidden intimations and all of the concealed paths that have been hidden in her heart from ancient times.
Talmud Sanhedrin 86a
“You Shall Not Steal…?”
Our Rabbis taught: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13) refers to one who steals people (abduction). – But perhaps it refers to one who steals property? – Interpret from context (based upon the Thirteen Principles by which the Torah is Interpreted): Just as the preceding and following commandments deal with capital crimes, so must this commandment deal with a capital crime (stealing people is a capital crime while stealing property is not)!
Where, then, does the Torah teach the prohibition of theft of property?
Another teaching: “You shall not steal or deal falsely or lie one to another” (Leviticus 19:11) refers to one who steals property (theft). – But perhaps it refers to one who steals people (abduction)? – Interpret from context (based upon the Thirteen Principles by which the Torah is Interpreted): Just as the preceding and following commandments (Leviticus 19:13) deal with property crimes (which are not capital crimes), so must this commandment (cf. Leviticus 19:11) deal with theft of property (which is not a capital crime)!
Targum Yonatan Isaiah 6:3
Infinite Holiness from Heaven to Earth
“Each one calls to the other and says,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
is the Eternal of Hosts;
His Presence fills all the earth!’”
They receive permission one from the other and say:
“Holy in the highest heavens, the home of His Presence;
holy upon the earth, product of His power;
holy for all time for ever is the Eternal of Hosts;
all of the earth is filled with the radiance of His Presence!”
Included as part of Kedusha Desidra, (“Uva letziyon go’el…”) in daily worship
Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai Yitro 20
Juxtaposition of Commandments
“He declared to you His covenant,
whereby He commanded you
to do Ten Commandments,
which He wrote
upon two tablets of stone.”
Five commandments on each of the two tablets—the explanation of Rabbi Chaninah ben Gamliel; but the Sages say: Ten commandments on each of the two tablets! So each of the last five (going from right to left) on the first of the two tablets would be juxtaposed with the first five on the second of the two tablets:
The Ten Commandments
on Two Tablets
according to the Sages
“You shall not murder,” the Sixth Commandment, was juxtaposed with the First Commandment, “I, the Eternal, am your God…,” resulting in: “You shall not murder Me…”—teaching that when one person murders another, it is as if he diminishes the Divine Image.
“You shall not commit adultery,” the Seventh Commandment, was juxtaposed with the Second Commandment, “Other gods shall not be for you…,” resulting in: “You shall not commit adultery with other gods…”—teaching that idolatry is tantamount to committing adultery, as the Prophet said, “Judah…defiles the Land by committing adultery with stone and wood idols” (Jeremiah 3:8-9)!
“You shall not steal,” the Eighth Commandment, was juxtaposed with the Third Commandment, “You shall not swear falsely…,” resulting in: “You shall not steal and then swear falsely…”—teaching that whoever steals will in the end come to deny it with a false oath.
“You shall not testify falsely against your neighbor…,” the Ninth Commandment, was juxtaposed with the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day…,” resulting in: “You shall not testify falsely against your neighbor but remember the Sabbath day…,”—as if the Holy One, blessed be He, says, “If you testify falsely against your neighbor, I regard you as one who violates the Sabbath and thereby testifies falsely against Me that I did not create the world in six days and did not rest on the seventh day.
“You shall not covet…,” the Tenth Commandment, was juxtaposed with the Fifth Commandment, “Show honor of father and mother…,” resulting in: “You shall not covet…the wife of another…, but show honor of father and mother…,”—teaching that when a man covets the wife of another, a son is born to her who shows honor to one who is not his father and curses the one who is.
Severally and Jointly
“You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not testify falsely against your neighbor.
You shall not covet…”
Perhaps I should consider all of these as one,
and I would not be culpable
unless I had transgressed all five of them?
No, even though they constitute only two verses,
the five commandments are written without conjunction between them,
so each one stands on its own as a separate commandment.
Thus, if you fail to uphold one,
you have transgressed that one alone.
If so, then why do you find later
(when they are reviewed by Moses in Deuteronomy)
that they are all connected by conjunctions?
“You shall not murder,
and you shall not commit adultery,
and you shall not steal,
and you shall not testify falsely against your neighbor;
and you shall not covet…”
The conjunction there of all five of them
tells us that they are linked one to another:
when a person breaks one of them,
he will come to break them all.
Whence do we learn that if a person commits murder, he will inevitably commit adultery? “My son, if sinners should entice you, do not consent, if they say, ‘Come with us, we will lie in wait for blood, we will hide for the innocent without cause, we will swallow them up alive like Sheol…,’ my son, rather accept my words and embrace my commandments…let wisdom enter your heart and knowledge become your pleasure…to rescue you from an evil path…from a promiscuous woman…who forsakes the husband of her youth and the covenant of her God” (Proverbs 1:10-2:16).
Whence do we learn that when a person commits adultery, he will inevitably steal? “If you see a thief and run with him, then with adulterers was your portion” (Psalms 50:18).
Whence do we learn that when a person steals, he will inevitably come to subvert true testimony? “One who casts his lot with a thief degrades himself, for when he hears the call for testimony (regarding a crime that his thieving friend committed), he will not speak up” (Proverbs 29:24; cf. Leviticus 5:1).
Wide Net of the Tenth Commandment
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
and his male servant and his female servant
and his ox and his ass
and anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Can you imagine someone who covets all of these things?
Consider one who would commit adultery with his neighbor’s wife, from which a male child is born. Her husband, believing that the child is his own son, then bequeaths to him his house and his field (cf. Deuteronomy 5:18) and his male servant and his female servant, his ox and his ass, and “everything that is your neighbor’s!”
Here He says, “You shall not covet…you shall not covet…” (Exodus 20:14), but when Moses reviews the Ten Commandments later, he says, “And you shall not covet…and you shall not desire…” (Deuteronomy 5:18)! These are two separate commandments: not to desire and not to covet.
Desiring is limited to one’s heart (wish), as thus he says: “For your spirit desires…” (Deuteronomy 12:20). Whereas coveting requires action, as thus he says: “You shall not covet the silver and gold that is upon them and take it for yourself…” (Deuteronomy 7:25).
Whence do we learn that if a person desires illicitly, he will inevitably covet? From: “And you shall not desire…” (Deuteronomy 5:18b) and the repetition of God’s original words by Moses here in the same verse, “And you shall not covet…” (Deuteronomy 5:18a).
Whence do we learn that when a person covets, he will inevitably take the property by force? From: “They covet fields, and then they seize them” (Micah 2:2).
Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 12th cent.)
in Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment 266:
When someone sees that another person has something that is attractive to him, if his thoughts get the better of him and he desires it, then he has transgressed, “You shall not desire….”
If his attraction to the thing involves his activity to the extent that he labors aggressively to persuade him to sell him the thing or to exchange it for something of greater value, then he has transgressed, “You shall not covet….” (This applies also if he simply purchased the item when the seller did not want to sell it.) Now he has transgressed two negative commandments, “You shall not desire…” and “You shall not covet….”
But if the owner altogether refused to sell the item to him or to exchange it so that his attraction leads him to take it by force, then he has transgressed additionally the commandment of “You shall not seize.”
Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 12th cent.)
in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Robbery and Loss, Chapter 1:
- Desire leads to coveting, and coveting leads to seizure…, and if the owner resists the seizure of his money or property, it will lead to the shedding of blood. Learn this from the incident of Ahab and Naboth (I Kings 21). [Cf. also David and Uriah (II Samuel 11-12) and more generally Eve and the Fruit (Genesis 2:15-3:24), Gehazi and Na’aman (II Kings 5), and Achan and the Cherem (Joshua 7).]
- Thus you learn that one who desires illicitly transgresses one negative commandment, and one who acquires the object of his desire by aggressive persuasion transgresses two negative commandments, for such was said together, “And you shall not covet…and you shall not desire…” (Deuteronomy 5:18). If he committed seizure of the object, then he has transgressed three negative commandments.
Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael Yitro Bachodesh 8
“You Shall Not Covet…”
Limitation and Generalization
“You shall not covet the house of your neighbor;
you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor
or his male servant or his female servant
or his ox or his ass,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
“And you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor;
and you shall not desire the house of your neighbor,
his field or his male servant or his female servant,
his ox or his ass,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
(1) “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor;” (Exodus 20:14) –
General statement of law
(2) “his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his ass,” (ibid.) –
Statement of details
Now, the rule of interpretation is:
When a (1) general statement of law is followed by a (2) statement of details,
the (1) general law is limited to what is in the (2) statement of details.
But when He adds:
(3) “or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (ibid.) –
He makes again a general statement!
Shall we consider this
(3) a general statement equivalent to the first (1) general statement
and therefore interpret the law as above
[that the (1) general law is limited to what is in the (2) statement of details]?
You must not; rather, we have here a different construction:
(1) General statement
(2) statement of details
(3) another general statement,
whereby the (1) law applies to what is common among the (2) details,
that is, the (2) details have been (3) generalized!
In this case, then, just as the (2) details (servants and animals) can be bought and sold, so the (1) law of “You shall not covet…” would (3) apply to that which can be bought and sold!
But can we go further and apply the law as follows: Just as the (2) details (servants and animals) are movable property which cannot be used as collateral, so the (1) law of “You shall not covet…” would (3) apply only to movable property which cannot be used as collateral? No, because He specifies another detail, “his field” (Deuteronomy 5:18), which is not movable property and can be used as collateral! So, just as the (2) details (servants, animals and fields) can be bought and sold, so the (1) law of “You shall not covet…” would (3) apply to that which can be bought and sold; and just as the (2) details (servants, animals and fields) can come into your possession only with the current owner’s permission, so the law of “You shall not covet…” would (3) apply to that which can come into your possession only with the current owner’s permission! Thereby excluding from the prohibition of “You shall not covet…” desiring another man’s adult daughter to become your son’s wife or his adult son to become your daughter’s husband! (Lauterbach: Such a desire would not fall under the prohibition of “You shall not covet…” because adult children can marry without consent of their father.)
Does the prohibition of “You shall not covet…” include a mere verbal expression of desire? Mere verbal expression is excluded by the Oral Torah interpretation of “You shall not covet the silver and gold that is on their idols, which you must burn, and take it for yourselves…” (Deuteronomy 7:25): Just as in that case was coveting prohibited only when it was fulfilled with an action (“and take it for yourselves”), so is coveting prohibited under “You shall not covet…” when it is fulfilled with an action (not a mere verbal expression of desire)!
Pesikta Rabbati 21,24
Numbers Rabbah 9:1
Coveting: The Ultimate Violation
“Jeshurun would grow fat and rebel…
forsaking God who made him,
belittling his saving Rock…
weakening the Rock (Tsur) who bore you,
forgetting God who brought you forth.”
Rabbi Yakum teaches: When one violates “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” it is as if he transgresses all of the Ten Commandments. How so? He covets God Himself in that he replaces God’s judgment with his own!
Rabbi Abahu compares this situation to that of an artist who was painting an image of the king. Just as he was about to finish the king’s face, it was reported to him that the king had died and another had mounted the throne. His hands became weak. “What shall I do with these paints?” he cried, “Shall I make my painting appear as the first king or as the second king?” His project’s completion was thrown into confusion!
Rabbi Isaac explained: One who commits adultery weakens, as it were, the power of Divinity, “weakening the Fashioner (Tsayar) of your birth (Deuteronomy 32:15)!” How? During the first forty days of pregnancy from her husband, God fashions the appearance of the child to resemble her husband, its father. But then, if the adulterer should come upon her at the conclusion of those forty days, the Holy One, blessed be He, is thrown into confusion: What shall I do with this foetus? Whose appearance should I fashion: the husband’s (who is the father) or the adulterer’s (in order to expose their sin)? The bloods of the foetus (like the paints of the artist) are thrown into confusion! Thus spoke the Prophet:
“Hear the word of the Eternal,
O Children of Israel,
for the Eternal has a quarrel
with the inhabitants of the Land,
there is no truth and there is no love in the Land.
Perjury and deception and murder
and theft and adultery have broken out,
and crimes follow upon crimes!”
Literally, “bloods touch bloods!”
What is Man’s Portion?
Who is rich?
One who is happy with his portion, which was said:
“Happy are you when you enjoy the labor of your own hands,
and good shall it be for you!”
The one who says,
“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,”
is of an average caliber.
This is the way of Torah:
Eat a piece of bread with salt,
drink a measure of water,
sit upon the ground,
endure the pains of life,
and labor in Torah.
If you do these, then:
“Happy are you…” (Psalms 128:2b) in this world,
“…and good shall it be for you” (Psalms 128:2c) in the world to come!
Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not covet honor,
but do more than your study.
Desire not the table of kings,
for your table is greater than their table
and your crown is greater than their crown,
and your Employer can be relied upon
to reward you for your work.
Among the (counter-covetous) ways Torah may be acquired:
Knowing one’s place,
Being happy with one’s portion,
Not attributing credit to oneself,
Loving the other,
Choosing the honest path,
Discounting one’s own scholarship,
Hesitating to issue a ruling,
Sharing the burden of another,
Judging another with the presumption of merit,
Supporting another in seeing the truth,
Finding a peaceful way to resolve disputes,
Learning with a settled frame of mind,
Both attacking and defending propositions,
Contributing to the arguments of others,
Learning in order to teach what is learned,
Learning in order to practice what is learned,
Posing questions to your teacher which lead to his deeper learning,
Deepening understanding of your teacher’s words, and
Crediting a teaching to the one who taught it.
Indeed you have learned:
Whoever says a word in the name of its sayer brings redemption to the world,
as was said when Mordechai learned of the plot of Bigthan and Teresh
against King Ahashuerus,
“He told Queen Esther, and Queen Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”
Exodus Rabbah 29:9
Response to the Divine Roar
What is the meaning of:
“The lion has roared: who will not fear;
the Lord God has spoken: who will not prophesy?”
Are these lines of the couplet parallel?
Said Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah, no fowl cried out, no bird took flight, no ox lowed, the ophanim did not fly, and the seraphim did not declare, “Holy! Holy!” The sea did not rage, and God’s creatures did not speak. The world was quiet and silent, and a voice came forth: “I am the Eternal your God” (Exodus 20:2)!
And upon review it was said:
“These words were spoken by the Eternal to all of your congregation
in the mountain from the midst of fire, cloud and thick darkness,
a great voice,
and it did not continue…”
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained: If one calls out to another, there is an echo after his voice. But the voice that came out of the Holy One, blessed be He, had no echo. This can be inferred from what happened at Mount Carmel, when Elijah assembled the idolatrous priests and told them to “call out in a loud voice, for he (Baal) is a god” (I Kings 18:7). The Holy One, blessed be He, quieted all the world and silenced those above and those below. All the world was turned back to its inchoate beginnings, as if the world had not experienced Creation, as was said, “There was no sound, no answer, no attention” (I Kings 18:29), for if there had been, they would have said, “Baal has answered us!” How much the moreso, then, when the Holy One, blessed be He, speaks upon Mount Sinai, He silences all of the world in order that His creatures might know that there is none but Him, saying, “I am the Eternal your God” (Exodus 20:1)!
The Midrash would seem to interpret the words of Amos
as, “Who would dare to prophesy!”
This interpretation would, through Midrash, present the implied parallel
of fear following the roar of a lion.
Talmud Chullin 91b
Israel More Favored for Praising than the Angels
“Jacob remains alone, and a man wrestles with him until dawn.
When he sees that he cannot prevail against him,
he wounds him in the hip socket, so that it is dislocated.
He says, ‘Let me go, as the dawn is breaking…’”
Jacob asked, “Are you a thief or a kidnapper that you should be afraid of the dawn?” He responded, “I am an angel, and since the day that I was created my moment for reciting my song of praise has not arrived until just now!” His claim that a particular angel’s moment of praise is not frequent and regular is supported by the teaching of Rav as transmitted by Rav Chananel:
Three [Rashi: new] groups of ministering angels recite the song of praise each day:
The first group sings, “Holy…” (Isaiah 6:3),
then the second group sings, “…holy…” (ibid.),
and then the third group sings, “…holy is the Eternal of Hosts” (ibid.)!
But to this claim other Rabbis objected: Beloved to the Holy One, blessed be He, are Israel even more than are the ministering angels, because while Israel sing their songs of praise every hour, the ministering angels are limited to once every day, although some would say even less frequently!
In addition, Israel are more beloved to the Holy One, blessed be He, than are the ministering angels because Israel pronounce the Name of God after two words, as was said, “Hear, Israel, the Eternal*…” (Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4), while the angels pronounce the Name of God only after three words, as is written, “Holy, holy, holy, the Eternal*…” (Kedusha, Isaiah 6:3)! And as to the three groups that you, Rav, describe:
The first group sings, “Holy…” (Isaiah 6:3),
then the second group sings, “Holy, holy…” (ibid.),
and then the third group sings, “Holy, holy, holy, the Eternal* of Hosts” (ibid.)!
*“Eternal” is our euphemism for the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, which appears in these verses.
Moreover, the ministering angels pronounce their praise above only after Israel pronounce their praise below, as was said, “When the morning stars sing praise,” only then “do all divine creatures shout for joy” (Job 38:7)! (Rashi: Israel are likened to the stars.)
Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael Yitro Bachodesh 11
“Make for Me (even) a (mere) earthen altar for your sacrifices:
your burnt offerings, your peace offerings,
of your flocks and of your herds;
wherever [b’chol hamakom asher]
I assign My Name [azkeer et-Sh’mee]
(even where the altar is as modest as earth),
I will come to you there and bless you [avo eylecha uveyrachteecha].”
How narrowly or broadly should we interpret?
“In all of the Place [b’chol hamakom],” in all of Jerusalem, the Place of the Temple, “where I assign My Name [asher azkeer et-Sh’mee],” where I disclose Myself to you, “I shall come to you and bless you [avo eylecha uveyrachteecha],” I shall come to you and bless you only there: According to this interpretation the Kohanim pronounced the Divine Name to transmit His blessing only in Jerusalem itself and nowhere outside of it.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob: “For everyone who is at the Place [b’chol hamakom],” if you come to My House, “it is under that condition that I shall assign My Name [asher azkeer et-Sh’mee],” only then shall I be present to you, “by coming to you and blessing you [avo eylecha uveyrachteecha]”: If you come to My House, I shall come to your house, but if you do not come to My House, I will not come to your house.
“In every place that I am pleased [b’chol hamakom asher],” at whatever place My heart loves, “I shall assign My Name [azkeer et-Sh’mee]” and “I shall come to you there [avo eylecha],” there shall My feet bring Me, “and I shall bless you [uveyrachteecha].” From this interpretation they said: Wherever ten people have entered the synagogue, the Shechina dwells among them, as was said, “God is present in a Godly congregation [quorum of ten, cf. Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:6]…” (Psalms 82:1a)—and whence do we derive as few as three who sit in judgment? “…in the midst of judges [minimum of three, cf. Mishnah Sanhedrin 3:1]” (ibid. 1b). Whence do we derive as few as two? From the Prophet: “Then spoke those who feared the Eternal, one to the other…and the Eternal took note and said, ‘They shall be mine…’” (Malachi 3:16-17). And whence even one? “In any place [b’chol hamakom] that I assign My Name [asher azkeer et-Sh’mee], I shall come to you and bless you [avo eylecha uveyrachteecha] (Exodus 20:21)!
“If you make for Me a stone altar,
do not use cut stones,
for by wielding your sword upon it
you profane it.”
From this verse Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar taught: As the altar was created to prolong the years of man and iron, to shorten them, let not the shortener be wielded upon the lengthener.
“Build an altar of stones to the Eternal your God;
do not wield iron upon them.
The stones must be whole [sheleymot]…”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught from these verses that what is meant by “whole [sheleymot] stones” is stones that enable wholeness and peace [shalom].
As for these inanimate stones of the altar—they neither see nor hear nor speak—which enable peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Do not wield iron upon them,” how much the moreso for any person who enables peace between man and man, between man and his wife, between city and city, between nation and nation, between government and government, between family and family, should no harm be done to him!
Lesson from the Altar
“Do not ascend to My altar by steps,
so that your nakedness is not exposed to it.”
As for the inanimate stones of the altar, which are devoid of judgment for bad or for good, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Do not act shamefully before them by exposing your nakedness,” how much the moreso should you not act shamefully before your fellow human being, who is made in the likeness of One abundant in judgment, by whose very word the world was created!