Yitro 5783-2023
“Why G-d Can Not Share the Limelight”
(updated and revised from Yitro 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, the Al-mighty reveals Himself to the People of Israel on Mt. Sinai and proclaims what is colloquially known as the “Ten Commandments.”

The name “Ten Commandments” is actually a misnomer, which is why traditionalists generally refer to these verses as the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹתAseret Hadibrot–the Ten Statements or the Decalogue. According to tradition, the first statement may not be a commandment. It reads (Exodus 20:2): אָנֹכִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיך, I am the L-rd, thy G-d who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a commandment at all, but rather a factual historical statement.

The rabbis of the Talmud (B’rachot, 33a) declare: הַכֹּל בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם חוּץ מִיִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם, Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven. The Al-mighty can make a person do anything, except believe in Him–because belief cannot be coercive.

Obviously, if the first statement is not a commandment, then these verses, Exodus 20:2-14, are not Ten Commandments, but rather, one Statement and nine Commandments! R. Saadiah Gaon has stated that all 613 commandments are subsumed within the Ten Statements, and that each Statement is a basic priciple from which many other commandments emanate.

One of the most perplexing of the Ten Statements is the so-called “second commandment”–the prohibition of idolatry. The Torah states (Exodus 20:3-6), לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי, You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make yourself a carved image or any other likeness of that which is in the heavens above or that is on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them, or worship them, for I the L-rd your G-d, am a jealous G-d, who visits the sins of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations for my enemies; but who shows kindness for thousands of generations to those who love Me and observe My commandments.

Even a cursory reading of this text raises many questions. Why isn’t the declaration of a monotheistic deity that is expressed in the first statement of the “Ten Commandments” sufficient? Why is it necessary to go into the “gory details” of the varied forms of idol worship–carved images, likenesses of that which is in the heavens, the earth or the water? Is the Al-mighty “afraid” of those who worship the sun, the moon, or the trees? What is the grave danger in this “alien” worship that renders idolatry a capital crime in Judaism? It does, after all, appear to be only an unsophisticated form of primitive worship.

I would like to suggest that there are actually two aspects of idolatry with which the Torah is concerned. The first is the primitive worship of sky or the earth, moon or water, which reduces the human being from Judaism’s exalted status of being created in the “image of G-d” and possessing potential G-d-like qualities, to being a creature of no purpose. From the very outset, the Torah (Genesis 1:27), promotes the concept of a human being who is created בְּצֶלֶם אֱ־לֹקִים–“B’tzeh’lem Eh’lo’kim”–in the image of G-d, and is bidden to emulate the positive and charitable qualities of the Al-mighty, known in philosophy as Imitatio Dei. Just as G-d is compassionate, so are human beings bidden to be compassionate. Just as G-d is forgiving, so are human beings urged to be forgiving. As G-d is just, so are human beings called upon to be just (Shabbat, 133b). Of course, when one worships a tree or a stone, one cannot emulate their “qualities.” And so, the fundamental element of righteous and moral behavior is absent from those who practice idolatry.

A second major issue that is raised by the second statement of the Ten Commandments, is the fact that once there are multiple deities—such as sun or moon, then there are, of necessity, multiple sources of ethical truths. For Judaism, the idea of a monotheistic G-d is not only that there is a single Deity, but also that there is a single source of ethics that may not be challenged or impeached by any other source. Once there are multiple deities, there are multiple sources of ethics, truth and definitions of right and wrong. One “god” can declare that killing under certain circumstances is murder. Another “god” may state that such actions are surely not murder, in fact, they are entirely justified.

Although most of us no longer live in cultures that practice idolatry in the ancient manner, the question of absolute ethics is a burning question even today. Those who live in democracies are in a position, made possible by the democratic vote, to legislate changes in ethics. What may have been absolutely unacceptable 50 years ago, by popular vote may suddenly be declared acceptable today. In many instances, these changes are meant to advance society, such as the prohibition of slavery and racial discrimination. In other instances, these changes are clearly a step backwards. The Scandinavian countries that legislated the right to perform euthanasia and permit physicians to assist in suicides, raise very serious moral issues for us, and the world. With the declaration of the second commandment, our Torah unequivocally posits that we may not subscribe to so-called “situational” ethics. For observant Jews, and for ethical monotheists in general, there are, in most instances, absolutes–such as the sanctity of family, property, and human life. These are the values upon which the Jewish people are not prepared to compromise.

And so, we see, that the declaration of a monotheistic Deity alone (the first commandment without the second commandment) is simply not sufficient. What is important for the Jew and for all civilized societies is to maintain the awareness and possess sufficient knowledge to reject any source that may compromise Judaism’s cherished absolute beliefs.

The profundity of these concepts cannot be overstated. In fact, that is why the Al-mighty Himself, rather than Moses, spoke these two commandments on Sinai. They ensure that the Divine values will be protected and heeded until the end of time.

May you be blessed.

On Sunday night and Monday, February 5th and 6th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that specifically grow in the land of Israel.