YISRO (Exodus, 18:1-20:23) — “Hey, What About the Other 603?”

I had a discussion the other day with the grandfather of a baby whose Bris I had just performed.  He maintained that the requirement that a Bris take place on the eighth day was a rule that had been introduced by Joshua.  He asserted that only the Ten Commandments had been given by G-d, and that the rest of Jewish practice was based upon rabbinic additions.

 Indeed, in this week’s Torah Reading we are presented with the awe-inspiring, breathtaking image of the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  The entire Nation of Israel stood at the base of the mountain as the Master of the World thundered forth, “I am your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt . . .” (Exodus, 20:2)

It has been pointed out that Judaism is the only religion that makes the claim that G-d appeared to the masses.  Others claim there was a private revelation to an individual prophet, who, in turn, passes G-d’s Word on to the nation.  The Nation of Israel stood at the base of the mountain and heard G-d’s pronouncements directly. The Ten Commandments were given at that time.  The rest of the Mitzvahs, however, were transmitted to us via Moses.

This has given rise to the mistaken assumption that the Ten Commandments have a unique status, more deserving of observance than the rest of the Torah.  Many Jews feel that it is very important to observe the Ten Commandments, while the rest of the 613 commandments remain on the back burner.  (Ironically, I have yet to meet such a person who actually observes the Sabbath, one of the Big Ten!!)

This is not a new misconception. There was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service.  As a result, there were people who saw this as a proof that ONLY those commandments were legitimate, negating the value of the rest of the Torah. In order to prevent this distortion from continuing, the rabbis of the Talmud removed it from the liturgy and banned public readings of the Ten Commandments, other than in the context of the regularly scheduled weekly Torah Reading.

Does this mean that there is nothing special about the Ten Commandments?  What then, is their significance?  What are we supposed to learn from them?

Let us examine the first of these Commandments, which, at first glance, doesn’t seem to be a Commandment at all: “I am your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”  This, according to Maimonides, is a Mitzvah requiring us to know that there is a G-d.  Rashi explains this verse as telling us that if for no other reason than the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt, we are obligated to subjugate ourselves to His will.

The second Commandment, “You will have no other gods before Me,” (Ibid, v.3) requires no explanation as a foundation of our faith.  G-d is telling us, “worship just Me; obey only My Commandments.”

 The Talmud tells us that only these first two Commandments were said to the entire nation.  Unable to withstand the intense holiness to which they were being exposed, the people asked Moses to receive the rest of the Commandments from G-d and to transmit them to the people.  He did so, not only with the remaining eight of the ten, but with the remaining 611 of the 613 Mitzvahs.

These ten are not an extraordinary ten, of greater priority.  These Commandments, given at Sinai, lay the groundwork for the rest of the Torah.  These Commandments tell us WHY we must obey ALL of the 613 Commandments. Just as these were given to us at Mt. Sinai, so too were all the others.  Next week’s Torah Portion, which deals primarily with civil law, torts and damages, is adjacent to this section to tell us that these seemingly “secular” laws were also given at Sinai, and must be observed.

In other words, it’s not good enough to observe the “Mt. Sinai” laws like not having false gods.  You also have to observe the “mundane” laws like not having false business practices.  The 613 Commandments are a “package deal.”

What if we don’t fulfill the entire package? What if we can’t observe all of the Mitzvahs?  We are not perfect, and we are sure to falter, so why should we bother?

This is actually a Christian concept.  Christian theology teaches that since we can’t fulfill the entire Torah, we are hopeless sinners, and that we must, therefore, find other means to salvation.  (See the Second Commandment, cited above.)

Judaism teaches that we have to strive to do whatever we can. Torah observance is a journey; we get as close to G-d as we can.  We should not allow our nonobservance of one mitzvah to be an excuse to ignore the rest.

If a person observes some Mitzvahs and doesn’t feel ready to do others, does that make him a hypocrite?  No, it means he is inconsistent.  (As we all are.) It means he is human.  It means he has room to grow.

The Ten Commandments stand as a “summary” of G-d’s will.  Appreciate your creators. (G-d and your parents.) Demonstrate your belief that G-d created the world by resting on His Sabbath. Don’t lie and don’t cheat and don’t lust for what’s not yours because G-d gives you what you’re supposed to have.

If we can focus on the First Commandment, the reminder of all that G-d has done for us, we will find it easier to accept the privilege of fulfilling ALL of His Mitzvahs.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

“American Idol Worship – Does G-d Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” (2013)

Is it appropriate for players like Tim Tebow to make grand gestures of prayer to a Master of the World Who has His Hands full dealing with things that are much more important, like whether people who are out of work will find a way to make their mortgage payments?…

Read more.

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“Ouch!” (2010)

Jethro, the high priest of Midian, was impressed.  His son-in-law, Moses,… had led his People out of Egypt.  He had led them triumphantly through the Red Sea, and presided over the defeat of the Amalekites who had attacked them.

Jethro heard about it all, and wanted to join Moses in celebrating G-d’s salvation …  Jethro brought offerings and sacrifices to G-d.

The miracles of the Exodus changed Jethro’s life.  He had already given up his life of idol worship, but had not yet found “the true religion.”  He now embraced Judaism…

But, something was amiss.  Jethro was ill at ease…

Read more.

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“Modern-Day Prophecy” (2009)

… our people experienced more than a one-time prophecy at Mount Sinai.  The legacy that we possess as a result of that miraculous day is more than just the Torah itself.  The entire prophecy of the Revelation is permanently installed on our spiritual “hard drive.”  You and I stood at Mount Sinai, and to this day, that inspiration enables us to reject anything that is less than genuine Torah.   … If that prophecy works so well, why is there so much assimilation?  Why are we not all sustained in our religious devotion by the prophecy of seeing Moses communicate with G-d 3500 years ago?  …

Read more.

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“But Rabbi, How Come YOU Can Come to Work on Shabbos?!”  (2007)

…I work for a large corporation with many employees.  Ironically, I am the only Jew in the company who’s allowed to “work” on Shabbos.

Yes, every Saturday, bright and early, I walk to work.  I go into the kitchen to make sure our food service staff is maintaining our kosher standards.  I go into our synagogue and oversee the Sabbath Services.   I make sure the appropriate prayers are recited, and I deliver a sermon.  (Sh-sh-sh!  Don’t tell anyone – sometimes my sermons are recycled Torah Talks! :-)) What am I doing at work?!…

Read more.

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“Honor thy … Self!” (2005)

…  It has been pointed out that the Commandments on the first Tablet deal with man’s relationship with G-d, while the second Tablet addresses his relationship his fellow man.

… the explanation of “G-d-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #1 and “Humanity-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #2 is at least 90% accurate.  Where we run into trouble is at Commandment #5 — Honor your father and your mother.  The last time I checked, parents are human beings (although some teenagers might tend to disagree!)  What are parents doing on G-d’s Tablet?!  …

Read more.

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“The Sword and the Stone” (2003)

…This prohibition goes further than banning the cutting of stone for the Altar.  It forbids any contact at all with iron.  The Altar was plastered twice a year; the plaster had to be applied with a nonmetallic applicator.  If a piece of iron so much as TOUCHED the Altar, it invalidated the Altar, and the stone needed to be replaced.

Isn’t this a bit much?  If you want to establish a symbolic link between a chisel cutting a stone and a sword cutting a person, that is understandable.  But a piece of iron TOUCHING the Altar?!  If a carpenter was doing repairs in the Temple, and his hammer accidentally brushed against the side of the Altar, why should the stones need to be replaced?…

Read more.

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“Divine Patience and Human Acceptance” (2002)

…Sometimes G-d’s patience with Evil is difficult to understand.

A famous Jewish author has sold millions of books, claiming to explain why bad things happen to good people.  His basic theory is that G-d can’t help it. (R”L) This author describes G-d as an impotent, grandfatherly figure who is powerless to save people from disease and other tragedy.  The G-d, (or should I say, “god”) of this man’s theology is there as a shoulder to cry on; someone to turn to for inspiration; little more.

I call this approach “religious atheism.”  You don’t have to be angry at G-d and you don’t have to deny His existence. You can believe in Him; just pretend that He is confronted by powers that even He can’t overcome, and you can still be a “believer.”

It is very comforting.  The only problem is that it isn’t Judaism…

Read more.

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“Hey, What About the Other 603?” (2001)

…There was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service…the rabbis of the Talmud removed it from the liturgy and banned public readings of the Ten Commandments…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on February 14, 2001 at 10:05 am  Leave a Comment  

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