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Parashat Yitro

02/04/2021 05:00:00 PM


Rabbi Hearshen

Parshat Yitro is packed with some of the most profound words ever uttered and ever transmitted. Those words are considered to be at the core of western society. What the non-Jewish world refers to as the Ten Commandments, the Jewish world refers to as the עשרת הדברות/Eseret HaDibrot/The Ten Statements. This is important to point out because in our division of the ten, we have a statement of faith and nine commandments. Much can be said about the 10 Statements. Often we explain that the first five on one tablet are positive in their wording and the second five on the other tablet are all prohibitive in their wording. The other way of dividing up the two tablets is found in looking at the subjects of the two tablets, the first tablet is בין אדם למקום/between us and God, and the second is בין אדם לחבירו/between us and other people.  

Religion in general, and Judaism in specific, is about the way that we relate to God just as much as how we relate to other people. In Judaism, we also see this as being divided into rituals and ethics. Oftentimes people get too drawn into one path or the other. For far too long we have allowed for a vision of our religion as being merely about ethics or as being only about the defining rituals we practice. In the Talmud there is a discussion about the words we use and the effect they have. In talking to a convert, it says that we may not assert that a mouth that has eaten non-kosher things cannot speak words of Torah. We can extrapolate from this that food we eat affects the words we say. To put it more basically, kosher food = kosher words and ritual = value. 

For some time, Jews in the more liberal movements have been replacing Judaism with ethical living and more conservative movements have likewise belittled ethics and asserted a pure adherence to our ritual laws. The Jews of today need to fight the impulse to move to either of those extremes and instead must see that our religion cannot have one without the other. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr., wrote about this at length in his two-volume work, תורה מן שמיים/Heavenly Torah. One time when he was in Israel, he addressed a group of Reform Rabbis and told them that they must care more about keeping kosher and adhering to Jewish ritual laws. On the same trip, he met with Orthodox Rabbis and asserted that they must not only care about the kashrut of their restaurants but also the ethics of their banks. 

To live a complete Jewish life we must be cognizant of our Jewish ethics and rituals. The two tablets of the revelation that were given to us through Moses in this week’s portion, remind us that our religion is not only about doing what is right and is not only about separate dishes. It is about both. Our Jewish lives must have ethics that are informed by our religion and our people. And our Jewish lives must be firmly rooted in adherence to our rituals and religious observances. That is how we continue to maintain our rich heritage that harkens back to the day the words of this week’s portion were transmitted on Mt. Sinai thousands of years ago.

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781