Hard to believe, this is the 67th D’var Torah I’ve written for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Hard to believe, with my retirement come July 1, this will be my last D’var Torah. My previous 66 Divrei Torah were randomly scattered among the Torah’s 54 weekly portions. Over the years, I was assigned Noach four times. This is the first time I’ve been assigned Parashat Yitro.
If all rabbis were polled which portion of the 54 is the Torah’s most important, the debate would be spirited, the opinions diverse, but Yitro would win in a walk. Here in Yitro, God and the Jewish people meet at Mount Sinai. Here in Yitro, God gives the Commandments, starting with Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Utterances, and then according to tradition, the Torah in its entirety.
Yet, the very name of Yitro expands the magnitude of the portion to the entire world. Yitro was not a Jew; Yitro was a Midianite priest. Emanating from Sinai, the Ten Commandments would also form the moral backbone of the New Testament and Sharia in Islam. The smaller our world grows, the larger these Commandments grow in influence. Thus, given my druthers, I’d prefer to write a D’var Torah for each of the Ten Commandments, and each times ten. Having this one opportunity alone, I focus on the first.
What exactly does “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage” command? Where is the verb that obligates us to do something, or refrain from doing something, as is the case for every other mitzvah?
Perhaps this implies that we should believe in God, belief being the foundation and motivation for keeping all other mitzvot. If so, why isn’t “You” the subject, “God” the direct object and “believe” the verb joining them? Yes, belief is a bulwark common to all religions. Belief certainly has its place in Judaism, as with Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith. But Judaism could not have survived the all too frequent bitter challenges of the last 3,000 years had it been based simply on belief. Judaism needed something more certain and solid. The first of the Aseret HaDibrot asserts exactly this with “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”
The Torah elevates experience above belief.
In this light, the Mekhilta asks why the Torah doesn’t begin with the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Mekhilta then offers a mashal — a parable — of a king who has taken over a new people. To accept his sovereignty, the people ask the king to prove all that he can do for their good. So it is for God and Israel. God brought us out of Egypt, divided the Red Sea for us, fed us with Manna, led us to Sinai and gave us the Commandments. For Torah and Judaism, faith finishes a distant second to fact.
The first word, Anochi, “I,” adds even greater strength and stability. This isn’t a secondhand account written in the third person. The first person “I” speaks, thundering from Sinai across the centuries. If somehow one cannot hear it, then one can see it plain as day in black and white, ink on parchment, a lightning bolt to shatter darkness. Anochi “I,” God, am talking to you directly.
Hard to believe, over the nearly 40 years I’ve been a rabbi, if I had a dollar for every Jew I’ve heard say, “I don’t believe in God,” I might not be as rich as Zuckerberg or Bloomberg, but I’d be pretty rich. Hard to believe that often the smarter and more educated these people are, the more they profess their disbelief. Hard to believe that they don’t understand that God has never been a matter of mere belief in Judaism. God is above and beyond belief. God is fact, the first and foremost of all facts. PJC
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is senior rabbi and spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.