Hebrew Insights into Parashat Yitro – Sh’mot (Exodus): 18 - 21
This week we arrive at Mount Sinai to participate in a glorious 'epiphanic' scene of colossal scope, but not before some more mundane matters are attended to. The touching and even intimate episode of Moshe's meeting with his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), evolves into an administrative plan proffered by the latter (Chapter 18).
Moshe tells Yitro that he has been busy “making known the statutes of Elohim and His laws” to the people (18:16). "Statues and laws" are "chukot and torot" (plural of "chok" and "torah"). This is not the first time that these legal terms are used prior to the "giving of the Law". Their usage, as seen here and in B’resheet (Gen.) 26:5 and Sh’mot (Ex.) 16:4, may help to widen the scope of understanding regarding these terms. Thus, instead of being perceived strictly as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts', YHVH's instructions to His People may be viewed as just that… instructions for life, for abundant life. "Chok" - "law" - is from the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof), meaning "to engrave or imprint" (and by implication "to decree, inscribe and enact"). With this understanding, the "law" may be viewed as an "imprint" rather than as something imposed totally from without. YHVH is seen as desiring to impress upon the hearts of His people His way of life and His character (with the "renewed covenant" being the final seal of that objective), while at the same time the act of inscribing is also to be mutual. As the following statement attests, it is not only YHVH who is embossing His imprint upon those who belong to Him, for He says: I have inscribed you (“cha'ko'tich”, with the same root of ch.k.k) on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16 italics added).
With some practice in nationhood now accomplished, “the House of Ya'acov" and the "Sons of Yisrael” (ref. 19:3) appear to be in a slightly better position to hear directly from YHVH. Shlomo Ostrovski1 delineates these two, seemingly synonymous terms that are used here for the Nation, as the "House of Ya'acov" being the title for the “natural” entity with its “natural” free will, in contradistinction to the "spiritual entity" – that is the "Sons of Yisrael" – who are to employ their will and capacity to make choices in a spiritual sense. This address is followed by ”…You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4 italics added). An imagery of this sort touchingly demonstrates the tenderness of a parent, as well as that of a husband, who, in Biblical terminology "brings" his bride to himself (e.g. Gen. 24:67). According to Nehama Leibowitz, the verse above (v. 4) describes "the road from Egypt to Sinai (and) represents a momentous spiritual and physical transition."2 The message Moshe is to convey to the People continues “…Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (19:5). This "special treasure" is "s'gula", and means "personal property", as Psalm 135:4 affirms: For YHVH has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure (“s'gulato", italics added). “Israel is chosen to reflect God's holiness and live out his commandments, reflecting His standards in a life of wholehearted compliance with the terms of the covenant’3. With this in mind, He further defines His people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). The people of Yisrael are being equipped for the task of expressing who and what they already are (in the eyes of their Elohim). They are quickly becoming both an organized and a well-administered group of people, as well as a holy covenant community of priests who are to minister to a royal Sovereign.
After having experienced the earlier phase of organizing for nationhood, they are now being instructed in "holiness", (which is) a totally new concept; hence the cleansing and separating measures which are imposed on them. If noted in list form, they are to: "consecrate", "wash clothes", "set bounds, be careful not to go up to the mountain and "nor touch its base", and "not come near [their] wives" (19:10, 12, 15). Being an “am s'gula”, they are not only YHVH's possession, but also a reflection of their Owner, marked by a distinction of status and of nature. "Kadosh", “holy”, primarily connotes separation and devotion to the service of YHVH. In the quick transition that they are making, the acts of “consecration” serve as an external illustration to what has hitherto been a completely strange notion. Likewise, the loftiness, holiness and sublime stature of YHVH will also be expressed in an external manifestation, as we shall soon see.
As part of YHVH's instructions, which precede His descent upon the Mountain, He says to Moshe “…When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (v. 13b); and (literally)…"when the yovel is drawn out…" (referring here to a prolonged sound). In this wording, it is not the familiar "shofar", but the yovel, a ram's horn. The root y.v.l (yod, vav, lamed) means to “lead” (e.g. Jer. 31:9 – “And with supplications I will lead them”), as it was undoubtedly the ram, that was used regularly to head ceremonial processions. Blowing the ram's horn also became the signal for the year of “Jubilee” - hence “yovel” for the 50th year. The English word ‘Jubilee’ is, therefore, a derivation of the Hebrew “yovel”. The shofar, by comparison, is the horn of a certain species of a wild goat (and mentioned in verses 16 and 19).
The greatest sound and light show is about to unfold with the following audio visual effects: Thunderings and lightnings, a thick cloud, loud sound of a trumpet, smoke (which envelops the mountain completely), and fire. The smoke is like the smoke of a furnace; the mountain is found quaking greatly, with the long blast of the trumpet becoming louder and louder (ref. 19:16-19).
The first part of chapter 20 (1-17) is devoted to the Decalogue, the ‘Ten Commandments’, or literally the d'varim – “words”, of the root d.v.r (which we have previously discussed as being the root for “desert, plague, to drive, thing, flock, holy of holies” and more). It is YHVH’s voice which utters these “d’varim” - “words”. (Incidentally, in the text itself the number ‘ten’ is not mentioned in connection with these declarations of YHVH.) The seventeen verses of these “d'varim” constitute for the Israelites the foundation, or basis, for their Covenant relationship with Elohim and with one another, helping to form this “am sgula” into what they are, who they are to become and in fact are Yisrael's very raison d'etre. Notice that even though at that time the Levitical priesthood had not yet come into being, mention is made of priests in 19:22. Some of the sages, as well as Rashi (the renowned Middle-Ages commentator), attribute this position to the firstborn, presumably because the latter belonged to YHVH (ref. Parashat Bo, Ex. 13:2). But regardless of whether or not that is the case, the existence of this early priesthood is a precursor pointing to a future reality (of a "nation of priests") yet to be fulfilled (beyond the era of the Levitical priesthood).
The first seven verses deal exclusively with Yisrael's relationship with YHVH. The text opens up (vs. 2) with "I am" – “anochi” (and not “ani”, a simpler form of "I"), denoting YHVH's inextricable link to His People, its circumstances ("who brought you out of Egypt") and destiny. “You shall have no other gods over my face” (v. 3, literal translation, italics added), is next. The word "face" utilized in this way refers to direct defiance and spite, implying according to the Mekhilta (2nd century commentary on Exodus) and Rashi, that this prohibition is for all times, not just for that generation. "Face" ("panim") implies Presence (e.g. Ex. 33:14-15 “…My face shall go before you”). And as YHVH's Presence 'automatically' includes place or location as well, this singular prohibition applies to all places4. YHVH's jealousy over His People (vs. 5) may be likened to the response of a jealous husband, thus making the Covenant of Elohim with Yisrael much like that of a marriage contract5
Next are the declarations concerning the Shabbat, which are an expression of the People's relationship with YHVH, albeit with an 'overflow' into the community and inter-personal associations within it. Shabbat shares its root with the root for the verb “ sit”, “shev” or in the infinitive, “shevet” (sh.v.t., shin, vet/bet, tav). Sitting connotes rest and bringing activity to a halt, such as YHVH did when “He ceased from all His work” of the Creation in B’resheet (Gen.) 2:2. Whereas all other 'calendarian' divisions (such as weeks and months) are dictated by natural phenomena, the seven-day week is purely a spiritual ‘divide’.
Since the first One to celebrate the Shabbat was Elohim Himself, after He had completed His work of Creation, it follows suit that this is a universal declaration that He and He alone is the Creator! In Sh’mot 31:12-17 we are told that the Shabbat is an "eternal covenant" and a sign between YHVH and the sons of Yisrael. In D’varim (Deut. 5:14-15 the reason given for celebrating the Shabbat's rest, together with one's entire household, is in order to remember the slavery in Egypt, and the freedom realized upon being brought out "by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm". Here is an acknowledgement of the miracle of ceasing to be a ‘slave’ (one who never rests), and of becoming free. Similarly, we are no longer “slaves to sin, but have been set free” from it (Ro. 6:6, 18). Hebrews 4:1-13 tells us that Shabbat rest is the reward bestowed on the one who believes and obeys; hence Shabbat also speaks powerfully of one's faith and obedience. The cessation from manual labor and from financial worries is a proclamation of trust and faith in the Heavenly Father for all provisions, not only on Shabbat, but at all times. We noted above that Shabbat is rooted in the verb "to sit". Yeshua, after having completed His task of offering the sacrifice for all times, “…sat down at the right hand of Elohim” (ref. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 10:12 italics added).
Following the Shabbat's injunctions, is the instruction concerning honoring of parents; "honoring" is esteeming them “weighty” ("kabed", k.v.d), with its promise of long life "upon the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you" (v. 12). Thus, there is a gradual and deductive* transition from the "heavenly" precepts to the Shabbat, which in itself is a link between the heavenly bond and its earthly expression, through to injunctions that have to do with one's nuclear family, which is to reflect the relationship with the Heavenly Father, and all the way down to one's own conduct within the community (v. 13-16) and finally to the hidden motives of the heart (v. 17).
YHVH continues to elaborate on His instructions, speaking through Moshe (vs. 22-26). In contradiction to the prohibition against the making of images and the glorifying of precious metals (vs. 23), comes the statement, “…An altar of earth you shall make for Me” (v. 24). “Altar” is “miz'be'ach”, of the root z.v.ch (zayin, vav, chet) - "to sacrifice". The altar is to be made of earth - adama - the same substance from which man was made and was named after (Adam). If the “miz'be'ach” should be made of stones, they are not to be embellished by any of man's efforts, or by tools and implements that are made by his hand (vs.25), lest the altar should become desecrated. “Profane or desecrate” is "chalel" (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed), meaning also "pierced through" or "hollow", and hence, "flute" and "slain". As "profanity", this term has several connotations such as "desecrate", "defilement", "uncleanness", the misuse of YHVH's name etc. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:5 we read, “He was pierced through –mecholal (of the same root) - for our transgressions.” However, as we have just seen, “mecholal” does not only mean “hollow” (and hence “pierced through”), but also “desecrated”, as indeed Yeshua was, having borne our sins. One last prohibition/injunction concerns not making steps to go up to the altar, so that one's nakedness would not be exposed. “Nakedness” here is "erva" (a.r.h, ayin, resh, hey), "to lay bear, uncover", and also "shame". However, it also means "to pour out", or "to empty out one's self", such as Yeshua did when He poured out (heh'e'ra) His soul unto death” (Is. 53: 12), so that our ‘nakedness’ would be covered, and our shame be done away with.
1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.
2 New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.
4 New Studies in Shmot, Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
5 The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.
* A progression from the general to the particular.