Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
As we read Parshat Yitro this Shabbat, we find the central theme of the entire Torah: the connection between God and mankind, through which the Almighty guides us, telling us which behaviors are appropriate, and which ones we should avoid. This is not something we should take for granted.
The first time we came across anything like this was when we read about the creation of man. We recall that things did not play out so well for Adam and Eve, who faltered by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a fruit they were commanded not to eat. That transgression resulted in severe punishment: from then on, man would eat bread “by the sweat of his brow”, woman would “beget children in pain”, and so on. What now? Should humanity be given more commandments to obey?
God decided that it was worth trying, and indeed, His revelation at Mount Sinai, in plain view of the entire nation of Israel, was to become one of the formative events in human history. The great asset we received there, at the peak of the mountain, came in the form of two tablets, upon which the famous Aseret haDibrot (“Ten Commandments” or “Ten Utterances”) were inscribed. These tablets served as a general outline of the entire Torah.
One intriguing challenge we encounter when trying to analyze these commandments involves understanding what they contain, and what they resulted in. This time, however, I’d like to investigate something visual and seemingly technical. It is difficult to avoid noticing how long the first five commandments are, especially when compared to the last five, most of which are very brief and laconic (“you shall not murder”, “you shall not steal”, etc.).
For comparison’s sake, let us look at the second commandment, which forbids creating and worshipping idols: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness that is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth” [Ex. 20:4]. And that is only half of the entire commandment.
Had it wanted to do so, the Torah could have gone into greater detail regarding the commandments banning murder or theft. For instance, the Torah could have expanded them by addressing the harm caused to women, children, the sick, and so on.
Yet when it comes to idol worship, the Torah greatly elaborates, specifying the images that we are forbidden from creating or worshipping. How can this stylistic difference be explained? It clearly is not because, Heaven forbid, the Torah does not view these transgressions as severe. After all, murder is considered a grave offense, which the Torah addresses at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis: “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” [Gen. 9:29].
Every human being is considered to have a sort of miniature manifestation of God nestled within, and harming that person is akin to harming that Divine manifestation. There could not be a more profound expression of the gravity of murder, in the eyes of the Torah. Still, we ask ourselves why only two words can suffice for the commandment not to murder, while three verses and dozens of words are used in the commandment prohibiting idol-worship.
Indeed, we could expand this question to encompass most of the prophetic books, which are primarily dedicated to countering the phenomenon of idol-worship. After all, all of the prophetic books look the same. Most of the time, the prophets were telling the nation to fight idol-worship, while the people generally fail to do so.
Why does the struggle against idol-worship receive such emphasis in the Torah? Why did idol-worship attract so many, to the extent that most of the prophets’ attempts to fight it were in vain?
In the Book of Genesis, the forbidden fruit was described as something that was “pleasant to look at, and a delight to the eyes [Gen. 3:6]. The Torah understands that the central challenge anyone inevitably faces at some point in life is reconciling the gap between what their eyes see and what their minds use as logic to perceive.
Most idol-worshippers presumably understood intellectually that no statuette could have been the driving force behind the creation of our amazing universe. But it is easier to connect to a statuette than a lofty, unseen Being that our senses cannot grasp.
The commandment forbidding us from creating idols uses detailed language because a person’s natural inclination is to be attracted to the material world, which offers warmth and pleasure, regardless of how artificial.
Everyone knows that murder, theft and adultery are unethical, so there is no need to expand on these transgressions. Shortly after the world was created, mankind needed to be instructed that every human being is created in the image of God, and no further elaboration was necessary. It was not that murder never occurred from then on, but from moment on, no one could justify such actions as being ethical.
The Torah understands that it is not sufficient that we be mindful that a particular act is forbidden. People need to develop their imaginations and emotions to cement their connection with the world of reason.
Thus, we need to vigilantly combat the misrepresentations fabricated by figments of our imagination. The Torah understands that a determined struggle against idol-worship will also reduce the murder rate, since the world of idols is one where people’s sensibility and morality succumb to their physical senses. We often ask ourselves how any self-respecting individual could ever fail at something that any schoolchild knows to be very wrong. This, in fact, is the message of the Aseret haDibrot: do not create idols, and do not live in a fantasy world. Instead, use reason above all else to guide your behavior.
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