Shabbat Shalom all!
It is that time again in the week that we sit back, relax and hang with our family or friends. But it is also time for this week’s parsha. This week’s parsha is Yitro and some pretty big events occur. For starters Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law) comes all the way from Midian to meet Moses and advises him to establish a judicial hierarchy of magistrates and judges in order to govern and administer justice to the people of Israel. This week is also when the Children of Israel are called to the bottom of Mount Sinai and Moses is asked by God to ascend to the top in order to receive the 10 Commandments.
Those are two pretty big things! The first is the establishment of a justice system and the other the process of receiving our base of a moral system. Why were these two things put together in the same parsha and what does it say about Judaism? I think the fact that they were put in the same parsha re-affirms the idea that a justice system should be based on morality, that a justice system should be fair and that the idea of justice is ingrained into our morality. Justice and morality are the corner stones of our people!
Social Justice is one of the main ways that Jews have their voices heard in this world. Just think about how many Jewish social justice NGOs exist in this country alone! We are a people that thrive on the idea of social justice, which was first ingrained into us here, in Yitro! Now there are other places in the Torah and general Jewish literature that tell us to go out and fight for justice in the world. Here is an example from Deuteronomy 16:20: “צדק צדק תרדף” (“justice justice you shall pursue”) or Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
I am now going to turn my attention to an interesting theory put forward by ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks about the 10 Commandments. Now most of us if asked ‘How many sections could the 10 Commandments be split into?’ would most likely answer 2; the first 5 being between God and Humans and the second 5 being between Human and Human, which is what I thought too. However Sacks gives another approach to this. Sacks believes that there are 3 groups of 3 Commandments and 1 stand-alone Commandment.
The first 3 – No other Gods but me, no graven images and no taking Gods name in vain – speak to our ultimate loyalty to God and the acceptance of Him/Her/It as the Jewish people’s Supreme sovereign and the final moral authority. The second 3 – the Sabbath, honouring one’s parents and the prohibition of murder – Sacks believes are about the principle of the “createdness of life”. Sacks here believes that these 3 speak of the respect one should have for the creation of life; whether that should be the entire universe (the Sabbath) or a single human (parents created you and not taking another human life in respect for the parents that created him/her). The third 3 – against adultery, theft and bearing false witness – establish the foundations of any justice system (according to Sacks). Sacks then has his stand-alone Commandment – the prohibition of envying your neighbour’s house, wife (yes because women are apparently property?), slave, ox, donkey or anything else belonging to him. Sacks states that “The greatest challenge of any society is how to contain the universal, inevitable phenomenon of envy: the desire to have what belongs to someone else. Envy lies at the heart of violence”. To me personally this last Commandment is very reminiscent of the Thought Police in George Orwell’s 1984 where one could be convicted for what one thinks. I am not sure yet how I feel about it but I wonder what others think (especially ones that have read Orwell’s masterpiece or have at least watched the ok movie of it).
This line of thinking that Sacks goes on about the 10 Commandments in not inconsequential as it provides us with a new way of thinking about a list of rules/commandments/mitzvoth that has been circulating the globe for the past arguably 3000 years. It provides one with a new perspective that is needed (I believe) by many Jews in the quasi-Secular world that see, at least the first 5 Commandments (in the traditional view of them), as unnecessary or inadequate for a modern system of morality. I’m not sure yet 100% where I personally stand on them but it is an interesting thought to say the least.
So let’s use this week’s Shabbat to think about Social Justice. Let’s use this time to study the Jewish roots of this idea. Let’s use this time to think of ways to make the world a better place, one built on the ideas of freedom, democracy and social justice; and at the same figure out ways to combat the enemies of all that we are striving to build!