Torah Ecology: Yitro 2017 (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23)

Yitro (Ex 18:1-24:18) begins with a story of working out the relationship between Moses and the Israelites and ends with a story of working out the relationship between the Israelites, G-d and the natural world. Choreography mediates these negotiations, which seem to suggest that G-d forgets earlier instructions and requires a reminder from Moses. Part of the process is a democratization of the relationship between the Israelites and transcendence.

The Choreography of Relationships

  • Ex 18:5 Yitro comes to Moses
  • Ex 18:12 Aaron and the elders come to Moses & Yitro, “eat before G-d”
  • Ex 18:27 Yitro leaves
  • Ex 19:2 Israelites camp near Mt. Sinai
  • Ex 19:3 Moses goes up to G-d
  • Ex 19:7 Moses “came” and called for the Elders, relates to them
  • Ex 19:8 Israelites “all the people” respond (although it doesn’t specifically tell us that Elders went to them with report)
  • Ex 19:8b Moses goes up to report to the Lord
  • Ex 19:14 Moses goes down to prepare the Israelites
  • Ex 19:17 Moses takes the Israelites to the bottom of the Mt.
  • Ex 19:18 The Lord “descends” in fire, smokes “ascends”
  • Ex 19:20 Moses goes up to the top of the Mt. where a curious negotiation occurs about who should come up, and Moses reminds G-d that G-d already said the people should not – G-d says, ok, just you come with Aaron, not the priests
  • Ex 19:25 Moses goes down to Israelites
  • Ex 20:1 G-d speaks to Israelites at base of Mt., delivering Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the 10 “words” – the Israelites tell Moses that he should speak with G-d and then deliver G-d’s words to them, not G-d directly (Ex 20:16)
  • Moses enters the “thick darkness” to hear G-d speak about G-d’s self

What occurs in the course of Moses’ dance between his extended family, Aaron, the Elders of the People, the Israelites and G-d?

  • Hierarchical society. Moses father-in-law, Yitro, comes to Moses and “eats before G-d” with Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel, the Elders of the people and a priestly elite (Yitro is a priest of Midian, Moses a levite, Aaron a priest). Before leaving, Yitro advises Moses to establish a hierarchy of judges to share the task of judging the Israelites. Thus, by the time Yitro departs, we have these categories of Israelite society and an administrative framework: priests, levites, elders of the people, judges and Israelites.
  • Entire society arrives at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites, led by Moses and with their priests, levites, elders and judges, progress in their journey, arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai in the third month, Sivan.
  • Negotiation and democratization. Moses “goes up” the mountain in 19:3 to speak with G-d, shuttling back and forth, initially communicating G-d’s words to the Israelites through the Elders. On another trip up the mountain in this sequence, a negotiation occurs in which G-d seems to expect the priests to come up the mountain with Moses until Moses reminds G-d of an earlier instruction. Finally, G-d’s instruction is that the priests will remain with the Israelites, their judges and elders and only Aaron will accompany Moses to the mountaintop to speak with G-d.
  • Moses becomes the emissary of the whole people at their request. In the last sequence, Moses joins the people at the base of the mountain, and G-d speaks to everyone at the base of the mountain, delivering the 10 words or 10 commandments. Overwhelmed with the power of the experience, the people voice their preference, that Moses alone should go and hear the words of G-d and return to relate them to the community. Moses then enters the “thick darkness,” where G-d delivers three directives:
    • You shall not make “with Me” gods of silver or gold.
    • You shall make an altar of earth to Me. Tooling it in any way profanes it.
    • You shall not go up by steps to my altar so your “nakedness” will not be uncovered.

The people cannot define G-d. In this case, the gods of silver and gold represent definition and thereby confinement. The people worship G-d by gathering at a completely natural altar, representing G-d’s creativity, not embellished with human creativity. It is a statement about approaching G-d unencumbered by civilization, reemphasizing the idea that G-d resists human definition or embellishment.

The third directive reminds the people indirectly that they are in the image of their creator. The obvious intention is that displaying genitals in that public forum is unseemly for one created in the image of G-d. Another intention, though, might be to refrain from any indication of gender. G-d appears with a body at several points in the biblical text — always concealing, though, anything that might suggest gender. Similarly this representative of the people, “in the image” of G-d, can have no indication of gender on display, undermining an idea of G-d’s unity and again emphasizing that G-d cannot be confined in a specific earthly form.

While the sequence until now first defined, then democratized Israelite society, this last segment shows us G-d talking about G-d’s self, beyond definition, beyond constriction in earthly forms, a creator G-d whose unadorned earth speaks of G-d’s glory and serves as a point of focus for worship.

The 10 “Words” or Commandments

The 10 commandments in 20:1-20:14 reveal the 3-part structure of cosmos set out in the first three chapters of Genesis: transcendence, all of creation and human beings. Here, though, we have an additional, fourth, element of structure, “neighbor.” The structure of the commandments is 3-2-3-2.

The first three commandments refer to G-d: 1) I am the Lord your G-d; you shall have no others before Me, 2) No graven images, 3) Don’t take the Name of the Lord in vain.

The second two commandments refer to creation, G-d’s and human creativity: 1) Remember the Sabbath, and 2) Honor your father and mother. G-d created the world, nature and humanity and rested; and your mother and father created you, brought you into life. These two commandments are the only positive commandments of the ten.

The next three commandments refer to all of humanity, all of human society: 1) Don’t murder, 2) Don’t commit adultery, and 3) Don’t steal.

The last two commandments use the distinctive word “neighbor,” re-ah (resh-ayin-hay): 1) Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor, and 2) Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, man-servant…etc.

The first chapters of Genesis spoke of a 3-part cosmos: transcendence-earth/creation-human beings. Those chapters outlined the relationship between the parts of creation. The 10 commandments reflect that 3-part cosmos but add a further subdivision: neighbors. Thus we have all of creation, of which humanity is part, and neighbors, who are part of humanity. This new segment begs the question, who is a neighbor?

One interpretation is that neighbors are Israelite society, and in a cascading scheme, each part containing what follows, that makes sense:

  1. Transcendence
  2. Creation
  3. Humanity
  4. Neighbors (Israelites?)

The Torah itself, though, expands that conception. Leviticus 19:18 commands us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Lev 19:34 tells us: “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Through parallelism, the second phrase suggests that a neighbor is the “home-born,” that is, a member of Israelite society — but also tells us that the stranger, someone not an Israelite who lives in the community, is like the home-born.

The rabbis tend toward a more universal interpretation. Rabbi Hillel in Shab. 31a says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” Avot i.12 offers an even more universal application, “Love your fellow creatures.” Avot ii.11 presents Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania saying that hatred of one’s fellow creatures is one of three things that drives man out of the world.

My own inclination, based on the cascading structure of the 10 commandments, is to understand “neighbor” as that person who is part of your society.

Having said that, though, I also want to point out that who makes up a society changes with time and circumstance, even within the biblical framework. The society in the wilderness of Sinai who received the commandments was Israelite, for the most part, although Moses own wife, Zipporah, was not. In the Land, others lived among the Israelites. Political turmoil and wars in the life of the nation resulted in an ever more cosmopolitan society. Certainly by the time of the rabbis and diaspora, the idea of society was much broader.

Today, in a global environment, in which the actions of each of us affect the balance of nature and all life in every part of the globe, the rabbis’ broadest understanding of who their “neighbor” was, namely all one’s fellow creatures, seems right and extraordinarily prescient. We are full circle back to the idea in the first three chapters of Bereishit, also expressed by the Jewish mystics, that everything is interdependent, G-d/transcendence, creation, human beings, and now we add to that, our smaller human societies. Every smallest action affects everything else.

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