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Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-2:23)

“And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
These are the words you shall speak to the Children of Israel” (Exodus 19:6).

Parashat Yitro introduces the Ten Commandments, arguably the thirteen most influential sentences in world history. Scholars have parsed the meaning in every word (and letter) with endless invention for centuries, yet these ancient words continue to offer new insights for today’s world.

Rabbi Shai Held (1971- ; scholar, theologian and President of Machon Hadar) notices only two commandments speak positively: “Remember the Sabbath day for holiness…” (Ex. ) and “Honor your father and mother…” (Ex. ). All the others begin with (or include) a prohibition. The language of both commandments is rich, conceptually, yet rather poor when it comes to specific details: how does one remember and honor?

Remembering Shabbat’s holiness means acknowledging its time belongs to God and is off-limits for human productivity: Shabbat’s hours and minutes may not be used for utilitarian or instrumental purposes. This is the reason for all the Shabbat “don’ts.”

Sanctity is the connecting link to the commandment to honor parents. Most commentators dwell on children’s obedience to their parents. But the Ten Commandments target grownups, which means the fifth commandment directs adults to honor their aging parents. But modern society mostly marginalizes the aging parent (and the elderly, generally) and assigns them a low social utility, because are no longer productive, materially. Like Shabbat, however, parents are God’s creation and are not to be measured by or valued for their output. They are to be cherished and respected for their intrinsic sanctity.

Thus, the fourth and fifth commandments are explicit reminders of God’s charge to, “…Be a holy nation…” (Ex. 19:6). They demand an active rebuttal to the modern world’s obsession with material productivity.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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