February 16, 2006
Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Immediately following the Ten Commandments, we read a series of instructions that seem a little out of place: You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an earthen altar and bring your sacrifices there, and I shall come and bless you wherever my name is mentioned. If you build an altar of stone do not build it of hewn stones because you have desecrated them with your sword, and do not ascend my altar by steps lest your nakedness will be exposed upon it" (Exodus 20:23-26).
Before we delve into these verses let us eavesdrop on a tent in the Israelites' encampment:
"Let me tell you son, what happened to me when I was about your age, shortly after leaving Egypt. It was the greatest moment of my life. I was standing with all the other Israelites, gathered around a mountain in the Sinai Desert when all of a sudden I felt that my soul is connected to the soul of every single person around me and to a higher, much more powerful source of spiritual energy. The whole world became quiet then and I heard the voice of God talking to me. Imagine, I, who was but a worthless slave yesterday, was now hearing the voice of God. I was overwhelmed, my legs were trembling and my whole body was weakened, I had a tremendous sense of fear but it was one of reverence and awe, not of terror, and it was accompanied with a great sense of joy. I felt that I didn't want to let go, I wanted to drink that energy in and let it flood my whole being. Yes, sir! That was definitely the experience of a lifetime."
"But grandpa, what did God tell you?"
"Honest to God, kid, I don't remember."
As strange as this conversation might sound, I have heard in many cases similar statements from people who have attended classes and lectures they thoroughly enjoyed but could not recall a word of what was said. As a matter of fact, God himself was concerned about the possibility of selective amnesia following the Mount Sinai experience, as we can learn from God's words to Moses shortly after the event: "May [the Israelites] always be of such mind to revere me" (in the recap of the story in Deuteronomy 5:26).
The most sublime spiritual experience and the greatest motivational speech are rendered worthless if the listeners don't come out with a practical application, something that they can take home and practice on a regular basis to enhance their own spiritual growth. One possible solution is to create a guide that will recapture the most important points of the lecture and will offer a program to be followed in order to maintain the initial spark and enthusiasm, and in the verses and chapters that follow the Ten Commandments, God does just that.
The following chapter in the Torah deals with financial laws, laws of damages, loans and properties. The message is that in order to keep the flame of Sinai alive, one should not indulge in nostalgia and live in the past but rather translate the spiritual experience to daily actions, actions that are carried out throughout our regular work day. Our personality is crafted and our spirituality is enhanced not only by offering prayers and attending services but by paying attention to the small details of our mundane life. How we deal with our employers, employees and clients, how ethically and honestly we run our business and practice and to what extent are we willing to take responsibility if we caused damage to anyone or infringed upon their rights. The Torah leads us up the road of spiritual growth and we can see that it is paved with myriad small acts of mutual consideration and constant self-education.
If we now analyze the verses that immediately succeed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:19-23) we may read them as follows: You shall not bow down to gold and silver, rather conduct your business and financial life ethically. Wherever I mention my name I will come to you and bless you, because you can bring holiness everywhere you go and with everything you do. The reverence of God and the Torah-directed life are not limited to the precincts of a temple, a tabernacle or a synagogue. An altar cannot be built of hewn stones, desecrated by the sword, an instrument of war, because if holiness is everywhere there is no place for religious fanaticism and for spreading God's word by means of war and bloodshed. Finally, the Torah warns not to ascend the altar by steps, an allusion to people who use religion's power as a means to aggrandize themselves and control others. The Torah places the authority and responsibility of leading a balanced religious life in the hands of every individual, and while in a sense it decentralizes religion, it empowers us to create a better world.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.