Yitro: The Commandments and the Man

By David Hazony
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

There's something confounding about the way the Torah presents the delivery of the Ten Commandments in this week's reading. The revelation at Sinai, the centerpiece of God's message and perhaps the most influential single text ever given to mankind, appears against the backdrop of two poignantly human stories that consistently undercut the mythic stature of Moses.

One story concerns the flip-flopping relationship between Moses and the Israelites. The latter, having lived their whole lives as utter dependents on the whim of Pharaoh, now find themselves similarly beholden to Moses—and they don't much like it. By the time they reach Sinai, grousing about how much better they had it back in Egypt, they've launched a string of minor rebellions. Although sometimes they do submit to Moses' authority—as in the run-up to the Ten Commandments, when they assure him that "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do"—just as often they seem ready to toss him into the same sea where he tossed Pharaoh.

The second set of stories seems designed to show how fragile, limited, and utterly human Moses really is. Last week we learned of Israel's miraculous military confrontation with the Amalekites in Refidim, a battle that turns on Moses' ability to stand for hours with his arms in the air—a feat he can perform only with the physical support of his brother Aaron and his friend Hur. This week, he is on the brink of physical collapse from the burden of sitting in judgment from morning to night, and again salvation comes from relying on close advisers who recognize his limitations.

Specifically, Jethro, his father-in-law, arrives from Midian, bringing Moses' wife and two sons (as if to remind him of his all-too-human encumbrances). Seeing what his son-in-law is going through, Jethro implores him to delegate responsibility to lower judges; otherwise, he tartly observes, "you will surely wear away, both you and this people that is with you." Moses concedes, and Israel's judiciary system is born.

"The Torah was not given to the ministering angels," the rabbis taught, and these stories underline the point—a point that must be understood before the Ten Commandments can be internalized. Each of them is phrased in the second-person singular: you, the human individual, shall not make idols, or murder, or covet. Together, they constitute ten pillars of biblical wisdom about the creation of a blessed society and world. But they have no meaning outside the complex creatures who are supposed to carry them out: creatures of flesh and blood, of will and desire, neither angels nor slaves.

First, angels. According to a rabbinic legend, when Moses went up to receive the Torah, the angels were there, challenging God: "Your precious secret You have kept hidden. . . . Now You plan to give it to one of flesh and blood?" Moses responds by going through each of the Ten Commandments and showing their utter irrelevance to angelic beings. Do you swear falsely, he asks, taking the Lord's name in vain? Do you toil, that you need to rest on the Sabbath? Do you have parents, whom you must struggle to honor? Do you harbor jealousy and violence, such that murder, adultery, and theft must be forbidden you? Immediately upon this demonstration, the legend concludes, the angels "conceded to Moses."

Next, slaves. Enslaved all their lives, the Israelites must come to terms with the fullness of humanity—their own, and that of their supreme leader. The challenge plagues them throughout their journey. It will be resolved only a full generation later, when Moses dies before they can enter the Promised Land, and their children, born in freedom, become the ones to establish the new Israelite kingdom there. Without that crucial lesson being taught and absorbed, the Ten Commandments would be just another list of absolutes, a false dream given to quivering slaves unable to understand them, much less live by them or exemplify them to future generations.

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.


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