Torah Ecology: Yitro 2018 (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23)

Last year’s analysis of Yitro revealed  a relationship theme and a 3-2-3-2 structure to the 10 Utterances:

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

The second two utterances 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 utterances 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 utterances 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. I expanded some on the possible meanings of “neighbor.”

These 10 Utterances serve to define parts of Cosmos and the relationships between the parts: G-d or Transcendence / G-d-Human Relationship / Human-Human Relationship / Relationships within a Society.  According to some rabbis, the idea of neighbor may extend beyond one’s immediate society to include a much wider “society,” even one’s fellow creatures, other animals.

Further, there is an epilogue to the 10 Utterances  in Exodus 20:21-23: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”

The epilogue, in my opinion, elaborates on the idea of the “image of G-d” and its corollary, the “likeness of G-d.” I want to focus on this theme, the image of G-d, for this reason: In order for the author/s of the worldview expressed in the Torah to arrive at a conclusion that an animal can be sacrificed to redeem a human debt or that eating animals is permissible, there must first be an understanding  that the human has a higher value.

Two of the things I have wanted to understand through my study over the last year-and-a-half are 1) what is the sense of indebtedness or guilt requiring an animal sacrifice about? and 2) what criteria, exactly, allowed a conclusion that a human life has greater value than an animal life? The “image of G-d” theme helps me explore the value question.

There are three terms or phrases used to refer to human beings. Two of them refer also to animals: both animals and humans are בָּשָׂר (basar – flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and נֶפֶשׁ (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d, a living being — most often translated “soul”). Only humans are נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ (b’tzelem Elokim, b’d’muto – “in our image, after our likeness”).

What, exactly, does “in the image” / “likeness” mean? Many suggest it refers to moral consciousness, a capability for moral decision-making.

And yet…there is a sense that something else is going on. Gn. 1:21 talks about the creation of other species in this way: “And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind…” And in Gn. 1:24: ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind.’ Human beings are in the likeness of G-d; and other living creatures are “after their kind.”

The birth of Seth in Gen. 5:1-3 creates more complexity around this idea of “in the image.” In parallel verses, G-d creates Adam — and Adam gives birth to Seth. The human action involves sexuality, G-d’s action does not. However, the result is the same: G-d’s creation is in G-d’s image and likeness. The child born to Adam is in Adam’s image and likeness: “In the day that God created Adam, in the likeness of God made He him…” (Gn. 5:1) – “[Adam] begot a son in his own likeness, after his image…” (Gn. 5:3). The obvious meaning of Adam begetting a son is his own image is that there is a physical resemblance between them. The relationship between G-d and Adam on the same basis must mean something similar, yet the presentation is nuanced.

There is yet another wrinkle in the idea that “in the image” refers, simply, to moral capacity in humans that animals don’t possess — and that is, that animals are held morally accountable, and animals are given specific moral instructions:

  1. Animals are exiled from the Garden into life along with their human counterparts. Given the instruction for veganism along with humans in the creation stories, beyond the Garden they, like humans, are part of a cycle of predator and prey.
  2. Animals, like humans (“all flesh,” which we recognize as a carcass without the animating breath of G-d), are wiped off the face of the earth in the Flood because of violence and corruption except for a saving remnant.
  3. The new food instructions in this post-diluvial world of predator and prey include meat-eating but with an immediate and significant restriction: humans cannot eat the blood, and they are held accountable for human lives they take — but so are the animals: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man.” (Gn. 9:5) – And more, a return to the “image of G-d” theme in this context: “…for in the image of God made He Adam.
  4. In terms of the purity of the animals appropriate for sacrifice, for G-d to “eat,” and for kashrut, for humans to eat, the possibility that an animal might prey on humans makes an animal unacceptable. I first thought, all the animals permitted to eat were vegetarian, which seems counter-intuitive. This is close but not 100% consistent and not necessarily a concern of the priestly text. Then I thought, all the animals permitted to eat don’t eat blood. Closer, but I’m not sure that’s quite it either, and it’s not a fully tested hypothesis. Most recently, after reading the Flood story and the passage quoted above, I think perhaps kashrut excludes those animals that are known to kill human beings — because human beings are “in the image” of G-d.
  5. Finally, I am considering the thought that an animal became the sacrifice in place of a human precisely because an animal was not “in the image” but was, rather, “after its kind.” Sacrificing the human whose debt was at the center of the sacrificial ritual would have been akin to sacrificing G-d. It was impossible. Thus understanding what, exactly, “in the image” means becomes critical to understanding the meaning of animal sacrifice.

So whatever “in the image” means, and I’ll fill that in more as I work my way through the portions this year, these phrases set out a foundation to look at the epilogue in this week’s portion, again: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”

Keeping in mind my diverse and as yet unsettled thoughts related to “in the image,” I read the unadorned earth altar and the unhewn stone altar as places of purity, materials from G-d without human additions. This is the place where the pure sacrifice, the perfect animal, spills its lifeblood in exchange for human lifeblood.

To the extent the human being is “in the image,” it is clear why it is forbidden to expose nakedness by ascending up steps. It is unseemly, but it is something else: it reveals gender, which appearances of G-d never do in the Torah — and it is tied to sexuality, a process that G-d doesn’t require when G-d creates (Gn. 5:1-3) We might say it would disrupt the ritual “fiction” in which human beings experience that they are G-d like.


These are the specific references to animals in Yitro:

Ex. 18:12 – “And Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for G-d; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before G-d with Moses’ father-in-law.

Ex. 19:4 – “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.'”

Ex. 19:13 -“…no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.”

Ex. 19:16 – “On the third day…and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”

Ex. 20:10 – “…but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your G-d: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”

Ex. 20:14 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Ex. 20:15 – “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn…”

Ex. 20:21 – “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen…”


Ex. 19:4 offers a beautiful, tender image of G-d saving G-d’s people, listing them out of bondage, as if “on wings of eagles.” It has the effect of showing a seamless relationship between G-d, the Israelites and the rest of G-d’s creation. In a characteristically paradoxical image, birds of prey not permissible for sacrifice or food become the image of G-d’s tenderness.

Ex. 19:13 focuses our attention once again on an awareness that animals are held accountable along with humans for their infractions, intentional and unintentional. They, like the Israelites, will die if they encroach on the mountain  perimeter.

One of the most beautiful and possibly distinctive ideas in this section is in Ex. 20:10, the fourth commandment. As Israelites observe the Sabbath through ceasing their labor, rest…so they are required to release their animals for rest on the seventh day. The sabbath is a day of rest from work for all those under the care of an Israelite including their domesticated animals. They reflect G-d’s treatment of them in their own behavior toward their animals.

Finally, we see again that the animals’ story corresponds to their human counterparts. They are intimately connected in sacrificial worship with one standing in for the other, and they are intimately connected in life, working together during six days and resting together on the Sabbath.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!