Parshat Yitro: The Balancing Act

The encounter with the Divine is often frightening and awesome (in the original sense of the rather than its use in modern day teenager slang). As described in the Bible, it often overwhelms the person physically, emotionally and psychologically. Similar descriptions of divine encounters are found in other cultures and in the literature of religious phenomena by such thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard, Rudolph Otto or William James.

Towards the conclusion of this week’s parsha, the Israelites experience such a moment of fear and trembling. After the theophany at Sinai, where God has revealed Himself to them and communicated to them the Decalogue (Aseret Ha-Dibrot), they turn to Moshe and express their fear. We are concerned, they say, that if God continues to speak to us directly, we will die. It is too much us. We want you, Moshe, to be our conduit, our medium between ourselves and the Divine. And it is at this moment and onward, as expounded on in the recounting of this event in Parshat Va-Etchanan in the book of Devarim, that Moshe truly is transformed into Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher par excellence. In the subsequent years of the sojourn in the desert, the people will receive the rest of the covenantal laws through Moshe’s mediation and teaching.

Did God Plan on Giving the Decalogue to the Israelites Directly?

There is a fascinating, but little-known debate amongst the medieval commentaries on the background to this moment in history. The looming question that hangs over this episode is: What was God’s original intent? Would the entire corpus of the Torah have been given directly by God to the Israelites without any role for Moshe? What would history have looked like?

R. Shmuel Ben-Meir (Rashbam) the great 12th century Northern French Bible commentator and grandson of Rashi, writes that ”If not for these words (of the people) it is appropriate to conclude that the people would have heard the entire Torah directly from the mouth of God”. In contrast to that statement, Nachmanides (Ramban), the towering 13th century, Spanish exegete (who we have no evidence ever had access to any manuscripts of Rashbam’s commentaries to the Bible) writes that this was all a terrible mistake on the part of the people. Basing himself on the account in Devarim Ch. 5, Ramban argues forcefully that God’s original intention, from the very outset, was to only communicate the Decalogue directly to the people.

The rest of the Torah would have been given through Moshe Rabbeinu and it was their misunderstanding of God’s will that was at issue here. This debate reflects a deep debate as to whether the Aseret Ha-Dibrot were destined from the outset of history to be a unique , separate section in the corpus of the Torah and its legal corpus or was it simply an accident of history that they were elevated to that status?

The late Prof. Elazar Touito z”l, of Jerusalem, the leading academic scholar of the works of Rashbam, once suggested in one of his essays, that in addition to the exegetical issues in debate here, Rashbam may have also had a polemical motive as well for his suggestion. We know from other sections of Rashbam’s writings that he had interactions with local priests and Christian scholars who engaged in the study of Bible. Some of those encounters revolved around polemical issues in dispute between Judaism and the Church. Classical Christian doctrine of the time was forced to confront the question of the validity and binding nature of the Torah, given that it was sacred “scripture”, yet was not practiced by Christians.

Ten commandments in MarbleOne approach argued that the ritual laws that were not directly given by God at Sinai were not part of God’s original plan and reflected a secondary legislation, of a lower order, necessary for the stiff-necked people who had sinned at the Golden Calf and beyond. In truth, however, the only real binding laws were those given by God directly. Rashbam emphasized that such a notion has no place in Jewish doctrine. There is no hierarchy and difference between different sections of mitzvot and all of the Torah is equally binding. It all is the word of God – D’var Hashem – and needs to be appreciated and embraced.

Many have noted that from a purely exegetical perspective, Rashbam’s reading is difficult to sustain. The Aseret Ha-Dibrot as presented in the Bible has unique features of literary and thematic structure, development, apodictic style (as noted at length by the great modern commentators such as U. Cassuto, B. Jacob, N. Leibowitz and many others) that clearly point to its being a distinct unit in the corpus of the Torah’s legal codex.

And thus it does appear, per Ramban, that the Torah wanted the words and themes of the Aseret Ha-Dibrot with its foundational language and call to belief in God, basic laws of human interaction and decency, and references to the critical moments of God’s intervention in history such as creation and the Exodus, serve as a legal prologue to the rest of the Torah’s legislation. It points to the notion that we, the Jewish people, need to understand, that prior to delving into vast ocean of nitty-gritty laws that will be the essence and main body of the Torah’s legislation, the ground floor of emunah and basic principles of Judaism need to be affirmed and remembered.

On the one hand, as observant Jews we are committed to keeping every detail of every law. We affirm with Rashbam that all are Divine in origin. And yet, we strive not to lose sight of the forest from the trees. We want to make sure that we appreciate that the rest of the corpus of Torah is rooted in a grandiose vision of a covenant with God that is rooted in the historical events of the Exodus and touches on foundational notions of the interaction between person and God and person and person.

Rav Nathaniel HelfgotRav Nathaniel Helfgot, a member of Beit Hillel, is Chair of the Dept. of Talmud and Rabbinics at the SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, and the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ. He serves on the adjunct faculty of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen.

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