Torah Weekly - Parshat Yitro

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Parshat Yitro

For the week ending 24 Shevat 5761 / February 16 & 17, 2001

Dedicated in loving memory of our mother and grandmother
Miriam Roseman bas Yisrael z"l -- 28 Shevat 5759

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    Hearing of the miracles Hashem performed for Bnei Yisrael, Moshe's father-in-law Yitro arrives with Moshe's wife and sons, reuniting the family in the wilderness. Yitro is so impressed by Moshe's detailing of the Exodus from Egypt that he converts to Judaism. Seeing that the only judicial authority for the entire Jewish nation is Moshe himself, Yitro suggests that subsidiary judges be appointed to adjudicate smaller matters, leaving Moshe free to attend to larger issues. Moshe accepts his advice. Bnei Yisrael arrive at Mt. Sinai where Hashem offers them the Torah. After they accept, Hashem charges Moshe to instruct the people not to approach the mountain, and to prepare for three days. On the third day, amidst thunder and lightning, Hashem's voice emanates from the smoke-enshrouded mountain and He speaks to the Jewish People, giving them the Ten Commandments:

    1. Believe in Hashem
    2. Don't worship other "gods"
    3. Don't use Hashem's name in vain
    4. Observe Shabbat
    5. Honor your parents
    6. Don't murder
    7. Don't commit adultery
    8. Don't kidnap
    9. Don't testify falsely
    10. Don't covet.

    After receiving the first two commandments, the Jewish People, overwhelmed by this experience of the Divine, request that Moshe relay Hashem's word to them. Hashem instructs Moshe to caution the Jewish People regarding their responsibility to be faithful to the One who spoke to them.




    "Moshe brought the people forth from the camp toward G-d, and they stood under the mountain." (19:17)

    Some 3,000 years ago, a little-known Middle-Eastern people gathered around a small mountain in a trackless wilderness and underwent an experience that changed world history.

    For the first time since the beginning of the universe, the Creator spoke to an entire nation. The nation was Israel. The mountain was Sinai. At Sinai, G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah, the mystical blueprint of the Creation.

    "...And they stood under the mountain."

    The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) reveals the hidden meaning of this verse. At Sinai, the Jewish People literally stood "under the mountain." G-d held the mountain over them like a barrel and said: "If you accept the Torah, fine. If not, there will be your burial place."

    This seems strange. Could it be that G-d coerced the Jewish People into accepting the Torah? Was the Torah the original "offer you can't refuse?" This is both unpalatable and contradictory, for we know that it was Israel alone among the nations that was prepared to accept the Torah "sight unseen." When the Creator offered us the Torah, we said, "We will do and we will hear," meaning that we will accept the Torah before we know all of what it requires of us. If we were prepared to accept Torah voluntarily, why should coercion be necessary?

    The Sixth Day

    At the beginning of the book of Genesis, it says yom hashishi -- "the sixth day." When speaking of the other days of creation the Torah does not use the definite article "the." It just says "second day...third day...." Translators add the word "the" to make the English more idiomatic, but in Hebrew only the sixth day is referred to as "the sixth day." Why?

    The anomaly of the addition of word "the" teaches us that on that first sixth day, at the very moment of the completion of the physical world, G-d placed a condition into creation. G-d made a condition that the universe would remain in a state of flux and impermanence until the Jewish People accepted the Torah at Sinai. And that was to be on another "sixth day." The sixth of Sivan -- Shavuot -- the day of the giving of the Torah.

    It's an amazing fact to ponder. The very fabric of existence hung in the balance for two and a half thousand years, from the creation of Man until Israel's acceptance of the Torah. In other words, the continuation of the entire creation was predicated on Israel agreeing to accept the Torah. If they had refused, the entire world would have returned to primordial chaos.

    Who's Running The Show?

    There's a apparent problem here. How could the whole future of the world depend on the choice of the Jewish People? How can existence itself -- reality -- be dependent on a created being? A creation cannot dictate the terms of existence, it can only be subject to them. Only one existence can dictate existence -- He who is Existence itself.

    G-d held a mountain over the Jewish People, not because they needed a little encouragement, but because existence cannot depend on man's volition. Man cannot govern what must be. Existence depends on G-d alone.

    It was for this reason that the Torah had to be given through coercion. For even though Israel was prepared to accept it voluntarily, the Torah, the Will of the Creator, cannot be subject to the will of His creations. Just as G-d must be, so too the Torah must be. Just as the Torah must be, so too it must be given in a way which must be.

    As an offer you can't refuse.

    • Midrash Tanchuma 1
    • Talmud Shabbat 88a
    • Maharal of Prague


    Yeshaya 6:1 - 7:6, 9:5-6



    Yeshaya envisions G-d sitting on a Heavenly throne which stretches down and fills the Temple below. Administering angels surround this throne, calling to each other with those familiar words which we echo in our twice daily "kedusha" prayer: "Holy, holy, holy is G-d, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory." The pillars shook at their cry and the whole place filled with smoke.

    G-d tells Yeshaya to say to the people: "Surely you hear, but you fail to comprehend; and surely you see, but you fail to know." This is Yeshaya's message to the nation that once stood at Sinai, that witnessed a revelation of G-d's presence akin to that described by Yeshaya. But G-d gave us the power to forget. The power to forget is the power of free will. How can we keep the experience of Sinai alive? How can we stop ourselves from forgetting?

    When we recite the "kedusha" prayer twice daily, we are to picture the Divine presence, to imagine the administering angels constant proclamation of G-d's glory. When we recite the blessings on the Torah every morning, we are to think of Sinai, to think back to when G-d "chose us from all the nations and gave us His Torah."

    Without a strong reminder, we are bound to forget.

    Written and Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
    General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
    Production Design: Michael Treblow

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