Yitro 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:26)


After leaving Egypt, Moshe and the Israelites meet up with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who also reunites him with his wife and son. Yitro sees that Moshe is taking on too much as the leader of the people, and advises him to delegate leadership responsibilities so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly. In the third month out of Egypt, God calls to Moshe and tells him to prepare the people for a great revelation at Mount Sinai. After three days the Presence of God is revealed on the mountain, and with smoke and lightning and shofar blasts the Ten Commandments are spoken, in the sight of all the people at the base of the mountain.


“I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. . . ” (Genesis Exodus 20:1-5)


According to the Jewish numbering, these verses contain the first and second of the “Ten Commandments”- or, better, “The Ten Things-That-Were-Spoken,” following the traditional Hebrew title for these verses, Aseret HaDibrot. Opinions differ on how the first verse is actually a commandment, but clearly we’re supposed to get the idea that Adonai is the Power that liberated us from enslavement, and that this Higher Power has an exclusive claim on our religious and spiritual loyalty. We are not to make physical representations of the Holy One, who must be our only God.


The ideology of the book of Exodus is clearly related to its historical context: the ancient Israelites were surrounded by civilizations that worshipped pantheons of deities, each deity with a special role. The Torah has a different spirituality to teach: there is One spiritual Source of both nature and history, of both heaven and earth, mountains and sea. This explains the various specific prohibitions within the general warning against making images: whereas other cultures may have had a deity of the skies and the deity of the oceans, and so on, Israel is to have only One, Who is understood as the Source of all that is.

How do we understand these verses today, given that our cultural context is so different? After all, although a few Jews do turn to other religions, by and large our neighbors aren’t worshipping statues of sky gods and ocean gods. One 18th century commentator, the Or Hachaim, offers a psychological insight into the enduring relevance of the “Second Commandment:”

Why was it necessary for the Torah to state, “You shall not make an idol?” Does not the first commandment already state “I am Adonai your God?” The answer is that the second commandment makes it plain that “Adonai, your God,” is not just one deity, nor even a supreme deity among many other gods, but that Adonai is the One and only God and there is no god beside Adonai.

A person may innocently reason that he acknowledges the complete supremacy of the true God and this idol (pesel, derived from the word pesolet, “waste” or “trash”) cannot be considered a deity. Continuing with his reasoning, he feels that he is inadequate to pray before the Supreme Being and requires an intermediary, even if it is mere “trash” compared to the true God. Thus, the one who prays regards the idol as closer to the level of God and invests in it the power to plead for him. Even this minimal homage to an intermediary is forbidden. (Adapted from a quotation in The Mitzvot, by Abraham Chill; parenthesis are in the original.)

What I find so fascinating about this comment by the Or HaChaim is that he relates the idea of idolatry not to theology or ideology, but to a person’s spiritual self-esteem. In this view, I think he’s correctly pointing out that many people feel spiritually inadequate, unworthy to pray on their own, directly to God, without any help or mediating structure.

As a rabbi, I know that people often ask a rabbi or chaplain to pray for someone who is sick or suffering, thinking perhaps that a rabbi has a special “connection” to the Source of All Healing. Now, no rabbi or chaplain worthy of the title would ordinarily refuse such a request, but it’s also a little uncomfortable, because rabbis also don’t want to take on that “intermediary” role that the Or HaChaim warns about.

The Or HaChaim is really pointing out something very profound here: that the great innovation of the “Ten Commandments” was not the prohibition against the worship of statues or images, as such, but the idea that any human being can directly connect with the Holy One , wherever they are, without regard to status, rituals, or physical place. That’s not to say that certain rituals or places can’t help us focus better or move us emotionally; they can, and do, and have a crucial place within the set of spiritual disciplines known as Judaism.

The bottom line, however, is this: you don’t need a rabbi, or a cantor, or a minyan, to pray. You just need the words, and the will, and the longing. All those other things help, and are important for other reasons, but not because they stand between you and God. Nothing needs come between you and God, not “anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

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