Parshas Yisro '96

The Receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai

     The parsha describes the revelation of the Torah in the desert. After the
Ten Commandments were pronounced, Moshe ascended the mountain for forty
days and nights. The commandments at the end of this parsha and the beginning
of the next were received by Moshe during those forty days and nights.

     The first two commandments of the ten -- to believe in G-d and the crime of
idolatry -- concern thought. The third -- not to swear in vain -- deals with speech.
The fourth -- Shabbos -- concerns action. The Torah provides guidance for all
aspects of life; in these three ways -- thought, speech, and deed -- the soul
communicates. (Rav Eli Munk) All of the 613 commandments were said orally.
The ten were heard by the people themselves. In fright, they told Moshe to go
alone, but they themselves would withdraw. Only Moshe would hear the other
603. He will relate them to the people later, and eventually record them on
parchment.

The Healing Power of Torah

     A verse in Proverbs ch. 15 states: 'The tree of life is healing speech.'
Rabbenu Bachaye explains in the introduction to our parsha (free translation):
"The soul sustains the body. The soul can animate the body even if the body be
ill, or lacking food and drink. If the soul is ill, however, who can maintain it?
Therefore the verse says: 'The tree of life is healing speech.' The Torah -- the
Tree of Life -- is the healing speech that heals the broken spirit.

     "Speech is a dangerous weapon, for physical weapons destroy the body but
leave the soul intact; words can destroy the soul. Disgracing, mocking another
person causes extreme spiritual pain. Thus the Talmud says that one who
shames another publicly has no share in the world to come, because he has
brought such damage to the soul.

     "The cure for the broken soul is, as we said, words of Torah. Torah is a
more potent medicine than chemicals and herbs, for they are at best doubtful
remedies, but the healing power of Torah study is certain. Chemicals and herbs
can at best remove the illness, but not increase life. The Torah, however, is called
the Tree of Life -- because it increases life.

Accepting the Torah's Commands (Exodus 19:7-8)

     Classical Judaism is based on commandments. The mitzvos are
commandments, orders from the Supernal Judge. Classically observant Jews
see themselves as obeying the King.

Today, however:

-We question before listening. Before finding out WHAT or HOW, we already
question WHY. As a parent knows, the question WHY as a response to an order,
is not worthy of an answer. The WHY before commitment -- before performance -
- is merely the attempt to rationalize, to justify the refusal to listen to orders. The
child who is allowed to know the why before he must obey -- such pampering will
obstruct character development to an incredible degree. Now the private judges
the general.

     Questions should indicate a desire to know, not a rejection without ever
even knowing. I am very familiar, after nearly 20 years of post-graduate religious
study, how fallacious it is when people assume that classical religious practices
have no meaning behind them.

     This is more of an issue than merely current social trends threatening
traditional religious environments. It also concerns respect and sensitivity for
others. Standing up for equality and individual rights is a matter of fairness. Must
it necessitate assertive defiance and breakdown of all respect for traditional role-
models?

Today:

-High officials show no respect for their office, and no one shows respect for them
either.

-Men and women must be treated in exactly the same way. Not respecting
themselves, and seeing the others as exactly the same as themselves -- they
cannot respect each other.

-Leaders and citizens must be treated in exactly the same way. Again, as they
have no respect for themselves, they will have no respect for the others, either.
Thus, everyone insults the president; a "religious" citizen assassinates the Israeli
prime minister.

     When there is no mutual respect, standing up for rights is not a matter of
fairness. The situations described here are not "fair." Cannot a president or prime
minister have rights, because of the office they hold? Cannot men have certain
rights as men, and women certain rights as women? Must women join the boy
scouts, and men the girl scouts?

     Cannot a classical approach to an enduring religion be protected? It is not
difficult to imagine a time when an orthodox synagogue will become illegal... I
wouldn't count on the ACLU to stand up for me.

     Yes, even adversaries should respect each other. Disdain and hatred will
accomplish nothing; dialogue in the spirit of understanding and desire to learn
breeds harmony. We must understand and respect our differences, before we
can establish similarities. I suggest the solution: " 'The tree of life is healing
speech.' The Torah -- the Tree of Life -- is the healing speech that heals the
broken spirit."