Friday, January 28, 2005

Ten Things....

This week it's Parashat Yitro -- Moshe brings the Israelites out into the wilderness and G-d almost drops the mountain on our heads. Along the way, we get a view of what real Torah justice is all about, and Moshe separates from his wife and children. Then, in the scene that inspired the finale of "Close Encounters", G-d brings down the loud noises and flashing lights on top of the mountain and speaks Ten Words. FYI: The Hebrew term, 'aseret haDibrot, literally means The Ten Words, the Ten Sayings, or maybe even Ten Things.

The analysis of the time line here is very interesting. Avivah Zornberg does a very thorough job of it in her amazing book, The Particulars of Rapture. If you care to go through some mental gymnastics, take the Book of Exodus, starting with the arrival of the Israelites at the wilderness of Sinai. Count how many times Moshe goes up and comes down Mount Sinai; count how many times G-d gives SOMETHING -- and the rabbis dispute which episode consitutes the actual giving of the Torah, how many times Torah was given, in how many pieces. The main lesson we take from this is that Time and Causality are inter-referential in Torah.

Much has been written on the actual giving of the Ten Things. You will recall that a really spiffy movie was made all about it. Charlton Heston led the Israelites out of bondage and led them into the desert, stumping all along for their inalienable Right to Bear Staves. We will take a much narrower focus.

At the beginning of the Parasha, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, comes from Midian to see his son-in-law and to catch up on the latest news. Yitro witnesses Moshe sitting all day in judgement, and the people of Israel standing in endless lines waiting for Moshe to pronounce the Law of G-d. Yitro is a practiced politician. He is a political and religious leader in Midian. The Midrash says that he is much more than just a "priest", as the text says, but that he holds a variety of political offices. In fact, the Gemara says that Yitro was one of Pharoah's three main advisers. The other two were Job and Bilam. When Pharoah suggested killing the Israelites, Bilam said yes, Job said nothing. Yitro fled. The gemara considers him the hero of that particular story.

With his knowledge of statecraft, combined with his experience as a religious leader, and the high level of spirituality the rabbiws attribute to him, Yitro was just the person to teach Moshe how to do his job. Moshe, after all, was the political, the religious, the spiritual and the legal leader of a people in an inchoate state of nationhood.

Yitro recommends appointing a heirarchy of leaders: for thousands and hundreds... down to leaders of tens. This is sort of like the army, and makes quite a lot of sense for military purposes. When the Torah speaks of "six hundred thousand" who went up from Egypt, it is 600,000 men at arms. The total was about three million. Quite a lot of people to have to answer questions for each day!

Rabbi Israel Reisman asks: why did Moshe sit alone? Isn't the halacha that a Beit Din, a rabbinnic court, must be made up of three judges? The answer is found in the gemara. Moshe sat, not as a judge -- not, as most of us understand the text, to determine who was wrong in disputes of ownership. Rather, he sat as a rabbi. The people were so fixated on righteousness that they came to Moshe to ask, not whether their neighbor didn't owe them money, but whether they themselves were entitled to receive what they had. At that time, we were as concerned about receiving impure money as we are today about eating pork.

Gevalt!

The Ten... whatever they are: Words, Things, Thoughts... Commandments. These are the seed of the Torah. Are they the actual Torah? There is an unresolved dispute between Rashi and Nachmanides (the Ramban) as to whether this is the actual giving of Torah. What is clear, though, is this: True justice lies, not in keeping to the letter of the law, but in going beyond. The Gemara says that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed because they were zealous in application of the law. Of the letter of the law. And they refused to go beyond.

The gemara tells a story of a rabbi who wandered and came to a town he had never seen before. "Let us show you how holy our people are," they told him, and they took him to watch proceedings before the Beit Din, the rabbinnic court. He came in and saw two people disputing before the Dayanim -- the Judges. One said:

"I bought a house from this man. I dug up the floor, and I found a burie4d treasure."

The second man said: "When I sold him the house, I had no idea the treasure was there!"

The first man says: "I bought the house from him, but I did not buy the treasure. I demand that the court require him to take back the treasure!"

The seller of the house says: "When I sold him the house, I sold it to him As Is - with everything that included. The treasure belongs to him. I demand the court force him to keep it!"

This is not a scene we are likely to see repeated any time soon.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z'l, was one of the great rabbis of the twentieth century and was justly revered throughout the Jewish world as a major authority on halachah, Jewish law. As do many other Poskim - rabbis who issue definitive halchic rulings - Rav Moshe wrote many teshuvot, or responsa, elucidating points of halachah he had been called upon to determine. His teshuvot are widely read, and he continues to influence rabinnic thought after his body has left this world, as is the rabinnic tradition. Rav Moshe, however, was also concerned about issuing these teshuvot, because he said the tendency of people is to read the topic sentence, then skip to the end, the conclusion, then take that same conclusion and apply it to a situation that, in their eyes, was similar to the one he had written on. Rav Moshe said the whole purpose of rabbis writing these responsa is not to give individual rulings that become standards, but rather to elaborate on the thought process, the analysis that goes into reaching halachic conclusions.

At the end of Parashat Yitro, after all the Ten Words have been uttered, after, at least according to one reading of the text, the entire Torah has been given, G-d seems to backtrack and cover old ground by saying "Do not make gods of gold and gods of silver with me." Didn't we just receive an explicit commandment not to make graven images for worship? Why do we need to be told this all over again?

Rashi makes a powerful statement, which is that the gold and silver ritual objects we create -- which we are about to create in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that we carried with us in the desert (these same objects that later are used in ritual in the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem) -- that these objects, even though they have an aspect of Kedusha, of sanctity, are not to be worshiped. Rashi mentions the cherubim, the gold statues built on top of the Ark of the Covenant, and says that we should not fall into the trap of worshiping them.

This is an amazing insight, but I think the text is pointing to something else.

Moshe sits at the outset, giving individual rulings to each Israelite. One by one, we come before Moshe asking our questions. Many of these questions are small matters. The paradigm is keeping a kosher home. If you accidentally use a dairy spoon to serve and eat bef stew, you will go to the rabbi to ask about the spoon, the pot, the dishes, the dishwasher, the stove... etc. Similarly, would not a person who was being careful to be just ask with as great concern about a penny as about a million dollars?

And Rav Moshe was pointing to an important lesson. Because people standing on line with their own questions might overhear Moshe's answer to someone in front of them and decide that their own question had also been answered. Yitro says: heads of thousands, heads of hundreds, heads of fifties, heads of tens. Because even if you just have to help ten willing people to keep to the straight and narrow, you are going to be running yourself ragged. Imagine what it will be like when the people decide that they want to test the limits!

In chapter 18, verse 18, Yitro tells Moshe: Navol tibol, gam atah, gam ha'am hazeh asher 'imach. Literally: "you will certainly wither away from fatigue - both you and this people who is with you." This is usually translated and interpreted to mean: This judging business is too much for one person to take on. You need to create a civil service so that you can do other things. And there is certainly truth to that reading.

But let's look back at the words. Navol tibol - You will turn to nivelah - a corpse. Both you, and this people who is with you - in other words: you, Moshe, don't forget that you are going to die one day! (The duplicative use of the verb navol tibol is an intensifier, usually, and correctly translated "You shall surely die.") Not just you, Moshe, but these people, the ones who are standing here with you in the Midbar, the desert, they will also die. This entire generation, the ones who experienced miracles and who are standing before you today in humility, afraid to take even one penny that doesn't belong to them. After you are gone, you will be replaced by generations of people who will argue over what your rulings actually meant. If the plain law is not clear to these people who actually experienced the presence and the miracles of G-d, how much more complex will it seem a generation, a century, a millenium hence! Don't think people are going to stand in line a hundred years from now insisting on giving back money that might not belong to them. It's not always going to be like this!

Yitro was a brilliant man, a political whiz. He understood, too, that nothing disrupts a society like money. Today they stand in line to ask whether they are entitled to keep their own money. Tomorrow, Yitro knows, they will be dragging each other into court screaming that they are entitled to take each other's money. And it will all come from the fact that Torah is given in words, that Reuven, standing first in line, receives a Psak Halacha, a halachic ruling from Moshe. Shimon, standing in line behind Reuven, says to himself "That's pretty much waht I was going to ask. I don't need to stick around." Next day, Shimon gets into a dispute over money with his next door neighbor, Levi. Shimon says: "Listen, Levi, Moshe says I'm right, so just fork it over!" Do not, says G-d, make "'iti" - "with me" or "by means of me" - or simply "me" as direct object. Do not make 'iti gods of silver and gold. G-d, like Yitro, realizes that money has the power to rip the fabric of the social system. Do not fall into the trap, says G-d, of thinking you understand the complexities of the laws of money. Rather, specifically with regard to business and money matters, go out of your way to ask, to be careful. The way to care for and maintain the harmony in society is to be careful of the property of others, not of one's own.

The gemara says that a person who is found by Beit Din to have received something improperly, and to be forced to return it to its rightful owner, should rejoice. The gemara says, if it is his only garment that he is forced to return, he should give it up gladly and sing and dance joyfully in the street, rejoicing that he has been freed from the sin of inadvertent theft.

What does this have to do with Mattan Torah -- the giving of Torah? It has to do with examining the inner nature of righteousness. That Right and Wrong are not What I Like, but there are objective standards. It is our job, not to define what is Right, but through ceaseless contemplation, and ceaseless self-observation, to find out what is right, then to apply it in every aspect of our lives.

Our entire understanding of Torah is informed by the notion that Torah is transmitted in words. And words are, necessarily, limited, imperfect. Words, the rabbis tell us, prevent communication. The Zohar compares language itself to a desolate wilderness, to exile. Maybe the whole Torah really is included in these Ten Things. If only we take them to heart, internalize them, try in every moment to make them a part of who we are, so that we are constantly seeking new ways to live by them. Just as we came to stand before Moshe, not to ask what more we could have, but whether we were deserving of having anything, maybe it's enough to have these few words of Torah. And to spend our whole lives making sure that we are deserving of them, just these ten things.

shabbat shalom

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