Yitro: An Ethic of Life

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Good afternoon- it’s that Ten Commandments time of year in our Torah
reading this week! After leaving Egypt, the Israelites travel for a
bit before arriving at Mt. Sinai, which they do this week in the Torah
portion called Yitro, named after Moshe’s father-in-law, who gives
some pretty important advice to his son-in-law in the beginning of the
parsha. After that, Moshe and the Israelites prepare for the
revelation at Sinai, which happens with fire and earthquakes and the
sound of the Shofar- quite something to imagine!

Most readers will know that among the “Ten Commandments” [“Aseret
HaDibrot”] is the famous injunction: “thou shalt not kill.”
(Shmot/Exodus 20:13). A good idea in general (says this vegetarian)
but the Hebrew most clearly does not say “do not kill;” it says “lo
tirtsach,” meaning, do not murder. (Which puts self-defense or
military actions in a different category.)

OK, so far, so good- I’ll bet the same readers who knew this was the
“Sixth Commandment” of the “Top Ten” have observed it rather
scrupulously, no matter how hard it is to resist violent urges when
dealing with the customer service operations of many large
corporations and public utilities. Yet the ancient rabbis interpreted
this mitzvah more broadly than simple murder in the Agatha Christie
sense- they saw this commandment as including actions which would
destroy life or hasten death. Thus, “lo tirtsach” includes the
prohibition of euthanasia, even if natural death is imminent.

Furthermore- and here’s where things get sticky for the non-homicidal
among us- the Torah commentator Abravanel, among others (and following
earlier texts), even includes actions which are seen as the moral
equivalent to murder, such as destroying someone by publicly
humiliating them or holding back from giving aid which could save
someone. Perhaps that particular reading is a lexical stretch, but
more generally, many commentators see “do not murder” as being rooted
in the fundamental idea that human beings are created “b’tzelem
Elohim,” or in the Divine Image.

Thus, to destroy a person out of rage or spite or greed, is to deny
God, as it were. To to put it another way, the theological problem
with murder is that a person arrogates to themselves the power of God
over another- and this would be true whether we’re talking about
physical violence or the psychological destruction of a person through
humiliation or public shaming. This also explains why euthanasia is
considered “murder:” even if natural death is close at hand, we should
have great humility in matters of life and death. (Cf. Abraham
Chills’ book “The Mitzvot” for more on this theme.)

As far as I know, there aren’t many murderers on rabbineal-list. Yet
the ancient sages knew that people are capable of hurting each other
in many different ways. They reached for a spiritual broadening of the
“sixth commandment” in order to make the point that refraining from
violence isn’t the same thing as nurturing life, which is, after all,
the greater vision of Torah and Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom,


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