Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Yithro – The Beginning and End of It

Psychologically, we are predisposed to pay close attention to beginnings and endings.

Origin stories are seen as the keys to people’s lives. And psychological research has often shown that how something ends – whether an ordeal or a joyous occasion – has a greater impact than other features of the experience.

What begins and concludes the most significant event in the history of Israel?

God begins the Ten Commandments with “Anochi,” “I am.” There is a discussion among the commentators as to whether this constitutes a declaration or a commandment. Abarbanel, the great Spanish sage, declares that it is a preamble, making clear to the Israelites who was speaking to them. Rambam, however, insists that it is a commandment, a mitzvah, the mitzvah of belief in one God.

The Israelites had seen God’s wonders enacted in Egypt, but they had not “met” God. Now, the voice comes from the sky and creates the frame for everything that will follow. The “I” of God is the opening of the Ten Commandments.

How does the revelation conclude? The last commandment concerns coveting. The final words are “that belong to your neighbor.” Therefore, the first word is “I am,” and the final word is “neighbor.”

The motion from God to neighbor is the movement from the greatest generality to the most particular specific – like a movie shot that opens far above the earth and lands in someone’s kitchen. We thought we were dwelling in the empyrean only to find ourselves at the dinner table.

These laws are woven into the fabric of the universe. They are the will of the Creator, not the arbitrary decision of a jurist or the law of social cohesion. You can violate them, but you cannot change them.

Socially, observed standards do change, sometimes radically, in the course of history. We abhor things today – slavery, child labor – that were once considered normative. Some therefore conclude, mistakenly, that there is no standard. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet forlornly declares. The revelation at Sinai makes clear: there is a right and a wrong.

How we treat each other matters, and not only to one another, but also to the One who created us, for we are all children of God.