Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you work and do all acts of physical creativity; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God, on which you shall not do any act of physical creativity’ (Ex. 20:8-10)
Undoubtedly the greatest gift of the Jews to the world is our Bible, the 24 books from Genesis to Chronicles, the quintessential centerpiece of which is the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.
If enlightened Western culture emerged from the twin influences of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian literatures, the “mother of human and humane morality” is the “Ten Utterances” (Aseret Hadibrot in Hebrew) expressed by an invisible and ineffable God from atop a desert mountain before a newly freed slave people, who adopted these ethical norms as the Declaration of Independence of their newly forming nation.
Indeed, in the past 3,500 years, no philosopher or theologian has come up with a more inclusive or trenchant moral code which says it better than the Divine Words uttered at Sinai: “Honor your father and your mother…” (basic gratitude to those who gave you life and nurture)
“You shall not murder.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
“You shall not covet” (that which belongs to another).
Here, in very few words, is set down the basic inviolability of every human being; if society would only adhere to these principles, the world would become a Garden of Eden.
But I must ask two important questions. I have listed the last six commandments; the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” the prohibition of “working” on the Sabbath, with which I opened this commentary, doesn’t seem to belong with the rest. What transgression against the integrity of another human being do I commit by opening up my business on Saturday morning? Moreover, if the essence of what was commanded at Sinai was principles of morality, why must the first three commands deal with God, the God who took us out of Egypt, the God who demands exclusivity of fealty, and the God whose name dare not be taken in vain? Is it not possible to be ethical or moral without necessarily believing in God?
Let us begin with the first of the “Ten Utterances,” not so much a commandment as it seems to be almost a definition of God’s “essence”: “I am the Lord who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” I am the Lord who insists that every human being be free! We must remember that the Book of Exodus emerges from the Book of Genesis, where God describes the creation of the world and creation of the human being. And what is remarkable and unique about the creation of the human is that he/she—unlike all other creatures of the universe—is created in God’s image, is inspirited with the soul of Divine life, is endowed with a portion of essence from God on High (Gen. 1:27, 2:7).
This means further that the human being was created to have freedom of choices, to be empowered to do even that which God would not have wanted him to do (Seforno ad loc, and the story of the eating of the forbidden fruit). Yes, God charges the human to develop and take responsibility for the world, to perfect the imperfect world which God created (Gen. 2:15; Isa. 45:7) and God believes that the human, created after all in His image, will eventually succeed in doing that (Isa. 2; Mic. 4). But let no one dare enslave the human, whom God made to be free, and let no one dare to violate the human created in the Divine image (Gen. 9:7). Herein lies the force of these three “commands.”
This Divine basis for human freedom and inviolability—for our biblical morality, if you will—is not at all self-evident. It was not only the Greek pagans who modeled the gods of Mount Olympus after humans, but it was also the Greek philosophers who accepted the right of the conqueror to acquire slaves, the right of the victor to take the spoils, the justice of the powerful controlling the weak. But it was Moses and the later prophets who articulated the responsibility of the rich and powerful to care for the poor and the weak, it was Abraham who articulated “God’s path of compassionate righteousness and moral justice,” and it was the author of the Book of Job who reminded the Jewish master to remove the injustice of owning a gentile slave; after all, “did not the one who made the Jewish master in His belly also make the gentile slave, did not the womb of the same One prepare them both?” (Job31:15 and Maimonides, Laws of Slaves, last law).
Now we can understand the majestic significance of the prohibition of working on the Sabbath; the Sabbath reminds us that God created the world, that God created the human being in His Divine Image, and that the human being is inviolate and free. Herein lies the ultimate value and equality of every human being, in both a moral as well as a political sense.
God demands that no totalitarian ruler may enslave his subject, may reduce him to slave labor seven days a week, may control his thoughts and beliefs.
God is our Ultimate Employer, who guarantees our ultimate freedom, who doesn’t allow us to work on the seventh Sabbath day! This is why, when Moses repeats the Decalogue in the Book of Deuteronomy, he links the Sabbath rest not to the creation of the world but rather to our exodus from Egypt: “Observe the Sabbath day… in order that your male gentile servant and your female gentile servant may rest like you, so that you remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there…” (Deut. 5:12-15).
It is the necessity of Sabbath rest which precludes slavery and thereby ensures universal freedom!