Shabbat Commentary

14/15  Feb: Yitro : Shabbat comes in 4:58 pm, ends 6:03 pm

Parashat Yitro – The First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel receive the Ten Sayings (also known as the ‘Ten Commandments’). Jews and Christians count these ten in a slightly different order, due to a disagreement about how to begin the list. The two lists read as follows (summarised):

Jewish Understanding
1. I am Hashem your God                                                                                 2. You shall have no other gods before Me
3. You shall not say God’s name in vain
4. Remember and sanctify Shabbat
5. Honour your father and mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not bear false witness                                                                  10. You shall not covet

Christian Understanding
1. I am Hashem your God; you shall have no other gods before Me
2. You shall not say God’s name in vain
3. Remember and sanctify Shabbat                                                                  4. Honour your father and mother
5. You shall not murder
6. You shall not commit adultery
7. You shall not steal
8. You shall not bear false witness
9. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife
10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods

The advantage of the Christian understanding is that the Ten Commandments all read as commandments. The disadvantage is an awkward reading of the ninth and tenth commandments, in which ‘you shall not covet’ must be split into two.

There has been a conflict in Jewish history over whether to read these ten statements as all being mitzvot, in which case, ‘I am God’ must also be a commandment. Some commentators, such as Abravanel, understand this first statement as being a declaration intended to precede these important commands. Abravanel would approve of the Hebrew terminology ‘Aseret haDibrot’ (‘The Ten Sayings’), because only nine of the sayings are commandments. Maimonides, however, reads ‘I am God’ as a command to belief. This is similar to an age-old question about the Shema: Is ‘you shall love Hashem your God’ a statement about emotion (you shall feel love), or a statement about action (you shall act lovingly, i.e. keep the mitzvot)?
There is no simple answer, and Jews are still in makhloket (holy disagreement) about this subject today. Whatever the answer may be – whether we are commanded to believe and feel, or only to do – it seems that the Children of Israel understand their obligations as being primarily (if not solely) about observance. ‘We will do, and we will hear,’ they say (Ex. 24:7) – understood to mean that we will do first, and understand later. Whether or not we think that belief is an obligation, we do hope that outward practice will affect our inner lives.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Natasha Mann












































































































































































































































































































































































So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme.  One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.


Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.


Rabbi Paul Arberman.


Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself.  This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:

” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,

hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,

as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”

Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society.  His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.

I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman









February 13, 2020