PARASHAT YITRO (Exodus 18 : 1 – 20 : 23)

The Ten Commandments

This week’s parashah is Yitro.  Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law and the sidra begins with his visit to the Israelite camp, where he advised Moses on the administration of justice.  The central feature of the parashah is the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments.

Chapter 19, verses 3-8 are the basis of the relationship of God and Israel.  Moses goes up to God and God calls to him from the mountain and says:  “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and so shall you tell the children of Israel:  ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto Myself.  Now, therefore, if you will hearken unto My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be to Me as a treasure from among the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. ‘  Moses then set before the elders of the people all that God had commanded him, and all of the people answered together and said:  ‘All that God has spoken, we will do.’”

Remarkably, God does not simply “tell” the people what is expected of them but, with Moses as intermediary, God first seeks their consent.  This consent is immensely important, because it endows the human person with the dignity of rationality, reflection and freely chosen engagement that issues forth in a relationship of love and reverence.  It means also that God withholds His absolute power to compel obedience and becomes a God of relation, entering faithfully into an engagement that will often be fraught and uncertain and, in human terms, wounding and hurtful.

At the same time, God is also manifest as King and Judge, and the Divine will is expressed absolutely in terms of commandment, rather than solicitation or request:  we encounter God as sovereign authority as well as merciful Creator, and there is an eternal tension between Divine judgement and Divine compassion.

Progressive Jewish thinkers often focus on our God-given reason and autonomy, while orthodoxy gives absolute precedence to the power of Divine commandment, but the full tradition encompasses both, as Rabbi Sacks eloquently articulated and we are surely imperilled if we lose sight of either.  If murder, stealing and adultery cease to be absolute prohibitions, then heaven help all of us.

Rabbi Sacks strikingly distinguishes covenant from contract.  Contracts are made when two or more people agree on what is in each of their interests to do, and the arrangement is rooted in mutual advantage.  My pipe is mended by the plumber, and the plumber receives his payment.  When both of us are happy, the relationship between us is terminated.

We speak of covenant, by contrast, when two or more people pledge themselves to be loyal to one another to achieve together what neither can achieve alone.  Covenant is not about ‘me’ or even ‘me’ and ‘you’, it is about ‘us’.  In a covenantal society people are bound by mutual responsibility for each other that is grounded in their relationship with God.  Covenant involves the creation of a new and shared identity and is rooted in altruistic commitment.

Marriage is an archetypical covenantal relationship:  the Sinai covenant will eventually be fully articulated in Hosea 2:19-20:  “I will betroth you forever;  I will betroth you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and mercy;  I will betroth you in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.”

Finally, community, neighbourhood, charity and voluntary associations are all covenantal:  people work together to help one another and are prepared to make considerable sacrifices, often wholly setting aside their own advantage.

Of course, covenantal arrangements do often include contractual elements and marriage is an obvious example, but the relationship is primarily covenantal.  Business is primarily contractual, but this need not preclude a strong element of the covenantal.  I believe that government should be covenantal, as it was in the first decades following 1945, rather than guided by the metaphor of the market as the UK has been since the 1970’s.  When covenantal relationships are reduced to market values, the result can be a great loss and much pain, as we might recall from the story of Laban and his daughters in Genesis 31.

For Walter Brueggemann, the Sinai Covenant and the Ten Commandments can be understood, at least in the first instance, as an absolute rejection of the world of Biblical Egypt, which was in no way covenantal.

In Pharaoh’s Egypt, religion was locked into the power structure and provided transcendent legitimacy for a system dedicated to tyranny, wealth and abusive control of the general population.  Reality was grasped, explained and manipulated in the interest of a powerful and controlling elite:  human persons were seen in purely instrumental terms and the result was a society that was coercive and exploitative:  slavery was the brutal opposite of covenantal freedom, which is the ultimate gift of the Sinai epiphany.

The first concern of the Ten Commandments was to ensure that God would never again be co-opted by any form of totalitarian regime.  The opening declaration:   “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” makes that crystal clear, and the prohibition of images and ‘other gods’ places the Divine beyond the reach of description or manipulation.

The sacredness of the Sabbath ensured that the economy would always be subordinate to ultimate humane values and the pursuit of wealth would never attain transcendent and defining significance.  For one day in every week productive labour was proscribed and every single individual of whatever social status would participate in the holiness of God’s creation.

Honour was not bound up with wealth or political power:  it was part of the dignity of family life, a recognition of all we receive from our parents, and ultimately all those around us whose gifts and sacrifices are at the heart of the good society.

Brutal regimes do not value human life and set little store on justice and righteousness.  Ultimately, society is corrupted at every level as some of us realise the gains that can be made by lying to the courts, or informing on our neighbours or taking the lives of those who stand in our way.

The Ten Commandments bring all of this into the open, making clear that the world is under new management and that the various sordid behaviours listed would no longer be tolerated.  A new political phenomenon was being created, a priestly kingdom and a covenantal community that would be a light and an inspiration for all the families of the earth.

Jonathan Gorsky