Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Yethro

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Becoming Doers

By Michael Chessen

The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, both encapsules and symbolizes the giving of the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai. In the midst of all of the drama surrounding this event, however, we tend to overlook its preparations and context.

The fact that the Torah is given to Moses and the Jewish people during the reading of Yitro is most instructive. Yitro, Moses' father-in law, was a convert of great insight, and his appearance in the Torah could perhaps be seen as foreshadowing the appearance of the renowned Rabbi Akiva, an individual who also came to a recognition of the greatness of God at a later stage of life but nevertheless made a considerable impression upon Judaism as we know it.

Whereas we do not usually associate Yitro with the great prophets and scholars of our people, his contribution in our current reading is indisputable. Upon witnessing the tremendous burden Moses bears as both judge and teacher for all of the people of Israel, Yitro advises Moses to delegate authority. Before he delves into the specifics for this, Yitro tells Moses that he first generally needs to inform the people of "the way in which they need to proceed and the deed they need to do." (Exodus 18:20)

This statement has begotten a number of homiletic stories in the Talmud which all come to demonstrate a single principle. This being that a person only truly observes the Torah if he or she adheres not only to the letter of the law, but fully to its spirit as well.

Rabbi Shalom Gold sees this principle reflected in God's instructions in preparation for the giving of the Torah. Moses is told that only he is to ascend Mt. Sinai, and then God goes on to strenuously warn him against anyone as much as touching the base of the mountain. Being that it was certainly within God's powers to keep the people off the mountain if He so desired, His apparent "anxiety" here appears somewhat puzzling.

However, God is less concerned with the people's actions than what is in their hearts. Jewish law, the halacha, should not be seen as merely a "fence", but a way of life. Rabbi Gold points out that in Yitro's exhortation to Moses, his usage of the term "to do", "ya'asoon", in Hebrew carries an extra letter nun, and should actually be translated as "becoming doers". Our choosing that which is good for both God and humanity should not be dictated by either fear or the sake of appearance, but sincere pursuit of truth and justice. And our conscientious adherence to this principle will ultimately transform our very being.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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