Exodus 18:1 to 20:23
This week’s parsha marks a major change in the content of Torah. We move from stories of our ancestors to text that emphasizes the laws that the Israelites are to follow for all time.
In many ways this parsha serves as an introduction or preamble to all the laws that follow through the rest of Torah. The parsha opens with a meeting between Moses and Jethro, a Midianite priest who is also the father-in-law of Moses. In this meeting Jethro praises God: “Blessed be the Eternal”, Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Eternal is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against the people.”
“And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law.” (Ex. 18:10-12) Then, Jethro tells Moses that his leadership, guidance, and judging over disputes within the community is too much for a single person to handle. Jethro suggests that Moses delegate his leadership to capable people within the community. (Ex. 18:19-23)
These passages demonstrate more than praise of God and advice from Jethro, a non-Israelite. Moses, by allowing Jethro to bring an offering and sacrifice to praise God, creates a tradition that allows people outside of the faith to worship and make sacrifices to God.
Then, Moses, by listening and adopting the advice of Jethro demonstrates that he Israelite community is not to be a closed community…. It is, and will be always be ready to adopt the ideas of the outside world. We see that the meeting with Jethro is more than just praise and advice. It creates traditions that will endure through the rest of history.
Then we read that God reveals his (or her) presence to the entire community at Sinai. The Eternal speaks: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you (Moses) shall speak to the children of Israel.’”
The people respond “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do.” (Ex. 19:8)
God spoke not to a single person who accepted the words and thoughts… But the words were addressed to ALL THE PEOPLE … and ALL THE PEOPLE listened and said that they would do as commanded.
This establishes the concept of REVELATION and COVENENT that has shaped Jewish thought through the ages.
Then, God gives the people, through Moses, the law. This presentation of the law will take up most of the rest of the Torah. This week we read the Ten Commandments. This writer sees these famous words as an introduction or preamble to the laws that follow.
The first four commandments detail our relationship with God. The fifth tells us to honor our parents. This is very important because parents are the source of education for children. In order for continued observance of the laws and commandments of God, they must be taught – by the parents – to the children. Without obedience to parents, the laws and traditions of the faith could be lost.
Commandments five through nine detail how man should relate to others in order to create a successful and prosperous community.
The last covenant tells us not to “covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet you neighbor’s wife, nor male nor female slave, nor ox nor ass, nor anything that is your neighbors.” This commandment seems to ask for the impossible. We should not covet or want what is not ours. It is asking us to control our thinking. How is it possible to never want more? … desire beyond what we own?
Rabbi Ari Geller in his weekly “The Lively Parsha Overview” explains why this commandment might be one of the most important. “This commandment applies to the mind. It is a uniquely God-given law. No other law book mentions it. Just try prosecuting someone for “coveting!” Except for the all-knowing God, there’s no way to know another person’s thoughts – and whether he’s coveting the other person’s house, spouse, and money.”
“Question: Why do the laws between humanity and God have thoughts before words and actions, and the laws between people have actions first?”
“Answer: When it comes to humanity and God, the most important thing is your intention. First the mind, then actions and words. Let everyone know what you believe and then apply it to your life. Actions without beliefs are meaningless, like putting Tefillin on a monkey!”
“When it comes to the laws between people, the actions come first, and then speech and mind. ‘I don’t care if you hate his guts, but don’t murder!’“ (Rabbi Ari Geller, The Lively Parsha, The Ten Commandments that Shook the World, Aish.com, February 10, 2003.
Many commentators see this week’s parsha as a statement of our faith’s core belief of “Revelation, Covenant, and Law.” This writer also sees it as an introduction or preamble to the rest of Torah. It both summarizes the law to follow, but also tells us to whom the law applies, and that “all the people” through all time have accepted this law.