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Yours to Command

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

If you were asked to pick out a portion of the Torah that is above controversy, the Ten Commandments would be a very likely choice.

But the truth is that even the Ten Commandments are controversial when we approach them as strictly binding laws rather than moral guideposts given to us for our inspiration. Take the commandment to observe the Sabbath for example, the fourth on the list. The Torah considers the violation of this commandment a capital offence:

"You shall observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; its desecrators shall be put to death..." (Exodus 31:14)


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To the modern mind, penalties of this sort seem primitive and savage. The person who violates the Sabbath harms no one. Why does he deserve to die? Is there any possible way to explain the phenomenon of capital punishment for religious offences rationally and defuse the controversy over the Ten Commandments?

Let us make an assumption that sheds considerable light on this dilemma and approach the death penalties for religious offences as consequences rather than interpreting them as punishments. Seen in this light, the capital penalty designated for Sabbath violation is there to inform us that for a Jew, the act of desecrating the Sabbath corresponds to jumping into a river without knowing how to swim.

Let us imagine the skeptic who does not believe that anyone can die by drowning confidently jumping into a river and drowning as a consequence. Would we consider his death by drowning unjust or unreasonable because it is contrary to his sincere belief that he would not drown? Of course not! In the same way, if a person actually inflicts a fatal spiritual injury on himself by desecrating the Sabbath, he will surely die regardless of his belief in the validity of the Sabbath laws.


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Torah commandments are clearly addressed to man's spiritual side. Whoever observes them necessarily regards himself as being a soul as well as a body. All of us are always on guard against a multitude of dangerous practices that can injure our bodies, and it should come as no surprise to discover that there are many activities that can injure our souls as well. Moreover, just as some physical injuries are fatal, there are spiritual injuries that can be fatal as well.

The capital offenses of the Torah are there to warn us against such potentially fatal spiritual practices. According to the Torah, our souls are who we essentially are; our bodies are merely the space suits we wear so that we can function in this physical world. It follows directly that when our souls suffer a fatal injury there is no need to keep wearing the garment whose sole function is to enable the soul to walk around this physical world.

Some Torah sources:

R' Chiya taught: "Following the destruction of the Temple, although we no longer have a Sanhedrin, [a Court that has the authority to execute capital offenders under Torah law] the four capital judgments are still with us. [Jewish law recognizes four methods of execution - stoning, burning, decapitation and strangulation. Part of the definition of a capital offence under Torah law is the assignment of the appropriate death penalty to the offence.] How can you say they are still with us when we no longer administer them? Because the law is still very much alive.

One who is liable to be stoned falls off the roof or is trampled by an animal; one who is liable to be burnt perishes by fire or is bitten by a snake; one who is liable to be decapitated suffers death at the hands of the non-Jewish government or brigands; one who is liable for strangulation either drowns in the river or dies of diphtheria." (Talmud, Ketubot, 30a)

This passage of Talmud clearly states the point just made. The Torah's capital punishments cannot be understood as acts of social vengeance. If this was their function they could not survive the collapse of the social structure they are meant to strengthen. As they are really the natural consequences of spiritual injuries caused by certain human activities they are obviously a part of reality in the same way as death by drowning. When Jewish courts are not around to impose them, nature kicks in. The lesson: An injury to the soul is no different than an injury to the body.

R' Simlai taught: "613 commandments were given to Moses - 365 negative commandments corresponding to the days in the solar year, and 248 positive commandments corresponding to the limbs of the human being." (Talmud, Makot 23b)

The negative commandments describe the dangers that this world, the world "under the sun", (see the essay on Parshat Bo: presents to the soul. The prohibitions of the Torah do not forbid certain forms of activity arbitrarily; they point out spiritual danger zones that we are unequipped to detect with our physical senses. Without the warnings provided by the Torah's prohibitions we would remain totally oblivious of such spiritual dangers, repeatedly stumble and suffer injury.

Anyone who has followed our simple argument should appreciate the fallacy of dismissing Torah ideas as primitive on the basis of shallow first impressions. By tracing the implications of the simple assumption that we have souls, an assumption that even most 'enlightened' people are perfectly willing to make, it is easy to reorient ourselves from a perspective where we viewed the Torah's edicts as senseless acts of savagery to a new vantage point where it is perfectly reasonable to understand them as sensible deterrents.

But it is not only to the prohibitions of the Torah that we need to reorient ourselves. The positive commandments should also be approached in the light of the same general principle.


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If man is primarily a soul, it is not enough to teach him to avoid spiritual pitfalls. He must also be given the means to express himself positively as a spiritual being.

People devote their entire lives to self-expression. The common yardstick for selecting a suitable career, the ideal spouse, or even a suit is how well the selection answers the question, "Is that me?" We have an inherent perception that there are many possible choices that may be sensible per se, but are not "us." Such choices, sensible though they may be, will not content us. Each of us has our own unique inner self that demands its own corresponding outward expression. The secret of happiness is to surround ourselves with things that accurately reflect this inner self. If I work at a job that is "me," live in a house that is "me," with someone who is "my" true counterpart is the best guarantee of happiness.

It stands to reason that if I am a soul as well as a body, this psychological need for self-expression must be broadened to embrace the soul as well. Surrounding ourselves with symbols that accurately reflect the unique quality of our inner soul must be as essential to our happiness as the correct expression of our personalities. But when it comes to the soul the expression of the inner 'me' is more complex. I can't see my soul! I am not self- conscious as a soul. How can I possibly learn to express myself as a soul?

Anticipating this dilemma, God provided us with positive commandments. The activities they describe are tools we need to express ourselves as souls. It is not by accident that the number of positive commandments precisely corresponds to the number of human limbs. Each commandment expresses the spiritual counterpart to one of our physical limbs! By carrying out all the commandments we articulate our entire soul.

It follows from the thesis we have presented that there is a non-obligatory, consequence oriented aspect to obeying or violating Torah commandments. Just as a book of instructions devoted to teaching the proper way to live physically is non obligatory, the Torah's instructions concerning the proper way to live spiritually are non obligatory. Having been presented with the consequences of the alternatives each person is left free follow his own preferences. The Torah itself clearly enunciates this aspect of the commandments.

"See - I have placed before you today the life and the good and the death and the evil...I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you; I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live you and your offspring..." (Devarim 30:15-19)


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But consequences are not all there is to commandments. Aside from their consequential aspect the commandments are binding upon us as pure obligations. Not only is it prudent to follow the commandments, we are told that we must wear them as a yoke around our necks.

The Talmud has a well known saying:

"The commandments were not given to enjoy." Rashi explains: "They were given as a yoke around our necks." (See Talmud Rosh Hashana, 28a, one among many citations to the same effect)

This seems like overreaching. It was difficult enough to relate to the commandments in the framework of consequences, but obligations? Where would such obligations come from? Theoretically, if an individual is unconcerned with the quality of his life, he has absolute freedom to do exactly as his heart desires. There is no moral obligation to keep any sort of laws. The primary motivation for observance of all rules is the search for happiness; if you don't follow rules society ostracize you for your disobedience. If you are contented to remain in a state of social isolation that most people regard as intolerable, you needn't follow any rules.


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If we search our hearts, most of us will discover that there are situations that we all recognize as capable of generating moral obligations. Most of us readily concede that while a person is free to do whatever he wants as long as it affects only himself, he has no right to engage in any action that will prove harmful to others. 'Rights' generate the obligation never to violate them. Another factor that generates moral obligations is gratitude. Let us examine each of these in turn.

The obligation to avoid causing physical harm to others is self-evident and needs no elaboration. But there are more subtle extensions of this concept that are worth pointing out.


  1. Environmental - An obligation not to injure others indirectly by reducing their quality of life. All human beings have a 'right' to life. Enjoying this right requires many natural inputs such as clean air, water etc. The lowering of the quality of any of these inputs reduces the possibility of enjoying life to the fullest extent possible and is therefore a morally unacceptable infringement on other people's rights.



  2. Emotional - An obligation not to disappoint the legitimate expectations of people for whose welfare we have voluntarily assumed responsibility. Most people would agree that it is morally wrong to ignore your spouse or your child, while ignoring strangers is impolite at best. The reason-human beings are sensitive and fragile. A person's moods and responses automatically affects the emotional well being of others. If you voluntarily enter into a relationship with others you assume a moral obligation to ensure that your inner state shall not be the cause of emotional distress to the people whose well being you have freely chosen to take on as your personal responsibility.


To bring home to us the concept that we are morally obligated to observe the commandments, God had to deliver the first two of the Ten Commandments to us in person. As the Talmud teaches:

R'Hamnuna said: "Where is this written [that 613 commandments were given]? "Moses prescribed the Torah to us, an eternal heritage for the congregation of Jacob" (Deuteronomy 33:4). The word Torah adds up to only 611 (taf=400, vav=6, reish=200, heh=5.) We heard the first two commandments from God Himself." (Talmud, Makot 23b)

The consequence model of commandments earlier considered does not necessitate a face-to-face personal meeting with God. Just as we can read about the laws of nature in textbooks, we can discover the rules of behavior that govern the well being of the soul without the benefit of personal meetings. In both instances we are free to ignore the information at our own risk.

But obligations can only be based on relationships, and the establishment of relationships does require meetings.


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The creation of man is described in the Book of Genesis in the following words:

"And YHVH Elohim formed the man of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)

This breath of God in us is the spiritual life force that we identify as our souls; according to Jewish thought the process of mingling the Divine breath with our own described in this passage is ongoing. The human soul is therefore described as "a portion of God above."

In a famous responsa, the Chavos Yoir, a great 17th century authority on halacha, ruled that printed holy books do not have sanctity. He explained:

Reason suggests that the holiness of the Torah scroll comes about through its writing by a person who has a soul; "the breath of the living God in his nostrils ... an integral part of God Himself." It is only through his thoughts and his drawing that the letters of the Torah scroll acquire their holiness. (Responsa of the Chavos Yair, 184)

A good image that accurately conveys the implications of the soul being 'the breath of God in our nostrils' is to picture a never-ending process of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. God exhales, as it were, spiritual life force into us. We inhale this Holy Spirit, but we also exhale. As we are linked with God mouth to mouth He necessarily breathes in whatever we exhale. The soul is a common shared resource between God and ourselves. When we sully it, we dirty the Divine atmosphere as it were and harm the spiritual ecology of God's world. We are interfering with someone else's quality of life.


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The sensation of existing separately from other people - as well as our sense of separation from God - is based on our being conscious of ourselves as physical beings. Each of us is enclosed in his or her separate physical envelope, a body separate from the next person's body and even more clearly separate from God.

But if we consider ourselves on the level of souls there is nothing to keep us apart from the next person or indeed from God Himself. This is the principle that underlies the concept that all Jews are responsible for one another. (See Talmud, Shevuos, 39a.) As we all share a common spiritual source, the results of our actions cannot help but affect all Jews.

This shared common spiritual source is the phenomenon that makes it possible for us to aim for achieving unity with God. As we are connected to Him through our souls in any case, sullying our souls is the only possible obstacle to attaining such unity. We can force God to withdraw His connection in order to avoid contact with a despoiled spiritual environment.

But this phenomenon extends to other Jews as well. We are all responsible for each other because we all branch out as individual souls within bodies from this shared common spiritual source. In the world of the soul we are all obligated to one another. Our actions necessarily impinge on other Jews both environmentally and emotionally.

The purpose of the face-to-face meeting with God at Sinai was to reveal the existence of this spiritually unity that emerges from the shared spiritual source.

"The entire people saw the voices and the flames ..." (Exodus 20:15)

Rashi, quoting Mechilta, explains: "They saw what can normally only be heard, and heard what can normally be seen."

R'Chaim of Voloz'hin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna explains: "They were so far removed from physicality by their meeting with God, that the things that were ordinarily visible to their physical senses had to be explained and understood as though they were phenomena that belonged to an unfamiliar world, while spiritual phenomena that were usually visible only to the mind's eye ... now became clearly visible as though to the naked eye."

The people who stood at Mt. Sinai perceived the soul world with absolute clarity, while the physical world receded into the remote distance generally occupied by spiritual matters. A meeting between the Congregation of Israel and God taking place at this high level of spirituality clearly exposed the spiritual connection that exists between all Jews as well as the connection between God and Israel. It is not by accident that when Moses retold the story of Mt.Sinai, he finished his tale with the classical statement of the absolute unity between God and the Jewish people that also includes the idea of their unity with each other, the Shema: Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem is the One and Only. (Devarim 6,4)


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Almost everyone feels a moral obligation to care for his or her parents. Our parents gave us life, cared for us and raised us. It is almost impossible for a normal human being to accept so many largesses from anyone without feeling a powerful urge to give something in return. To continuously receive and never reciprocate goes against the grain of our basic built in desire to stand independently on our own two feet.

No one could ever possibly match what God has done for us. He created the world for us and gave us life and everything we have. Almost all human beings declare that they believe this when they are asked. Why don't more of us humans feel the urge to reciprocate and do something for God in return for all that He has done for us?

The solution to the mystery is very much related to the need to the things we have been discussing. According to the common understanding shared by most believers, God created the world in the beginning of time. Ever since then He is mainly concerned with maintenance. This translates into the perception that there are over six billion human beings beside oneself who are the recipients of this same bounty. God obviously didn't do anything for any person in particular! My parents inspired the feeling that I must reciprocate because they loved me and cared for me, but God loves all His creatures. Whatever He did for me was impersonal. It fails to awaken a sense of moral obligation to reciprocate.

The encounter at Sinai brought home the personal aspect of the relationship each of us has with God. The mouth-to-mouth resuscitation model of connectedness brings home just how intimately God is involved with each and every one of us as individuals. He keeps us alive and breathing on an individual basis, not as part of the lumped together mass of humanity. Each and every one of us is given his or her own portion of the Divine essence. It is impossible to imagine a stronger moral imperative to express gratitude.

What can we do for God? We can obey His commandments. Why should God care whether we pay attention to His commandments or not? The moral obligation imposed by the natural feelings of gratitude should render such philosophical questions irrelevant. When my parents ask me to do something for them they regard as important I don't start questioning the necessity. First I get it done; only then do I begin to examine the motives behind the request.

Not only are we free to question all aspects of the commandments; those who have studied some Torah know that we are positively encouraged never to accept anything on faith. Understanding the commandments is one of our greatest responsibilities. But gratitude demands that obedience comes first.


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"... the script was the script of God engraved on the Tablets..." (Exodus 32:16)

The word for "engraved" in Hebrew is chorus, identical except in pronunciation to the Hebrew word cherus meaning "freedom." The rabbis understand this similarity to indicate that only the person who spends his time tying to master what is written on the tablets is truly free (see Avos 6:2).

To the superficial observer it must appear that the strictly observant Jew leads a severely confined existence that is the very antithesis of freedom. His life is governed by rules and regulations that regiment the minutest aspects of every sort of human behavior - thought, speech and action. To stake an exclusive claim to freedom for anyone leading such a highly circumscribed life seems absurdly wrong headed. But the superficial glance only encompasses life on the surface, the physical world. It is quite true that physically the observant Jew is more constrained than other people. However, this does not put him at a great disadvantage for true freedom is unobtainable in the physical world for anyone no matter what lifestyle he or she pursues. The body is a cage that confines the human spirit and keeps it away from its true home, the infinite world of the soul.

The restrictions regarding the indulgence in the physical world ensure that the observant Jew spends the bulk of his days in the world of the soul. The acceptance of the Torah represents the only avenue of emancipation from the confines of the physical world. The Ten Commandments is the highway to the world of spiritual liberation built for us by God.


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