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Parsha Yitro

01/24/2019 07:59:53 PM


The Ten Commandments were divided into two tablets, and the Ramban famously categorizes the first five commandments as being between Man and God, and the latter half as being between Man and his fellow man.  Although the fifth commandment, to honor one’s parents, is not directly between Man and God, the Ramban explains that since parents “partner” with God, so to speak, in creating a child, honoring parents is a derivative of honoring God.  R’ Hirsch has a brilliant insight regarding the order within the two groupings of commandments, as he first notes that each set of five contain mitzvos that are thoughts/feelings, speech, and action.  In the first set, the commandments begin with thoughts and feelings, with the mitzvos of believing in God and not ascribing powers to other gods, and then continue with speech in the mitzvah of not uttering God’s name in vain, and conclude with mitzvos of action with Shabbos and honoring parents.  In stark contrast, the second set of five follow the opposite order, beginning with action mitzvos of not murdering, not committing adultery or stealing, and then moving to mitzvos of speech with the mitzvah of not testifying falsely against one’s neighbor, and finally concluding with the thought based mitzvah of not coveting one’s friend.  Why is the sequence of thought, speech, and action regarding God reversed to action, speech, and thought regarding Man?

If we assume that these sequences are placed in ascending order, it emerges that the highest level of serving God is through action while the highest level of respecting other human beings is through thought.  In mitzvos between Man and God, believing in God is the elementary ideas that are built upon and channeled towards speaking about God, and finally reaching an even higher level of acting for God.  It is not enough to feel for God, or to believe in Him, as those thoughts and emotions are meant to be the rudimentary building blocks to ascend to levels of speech and action.  Between Man and other human beings, the opposite sequence is used, because it is easier to act in proper societal norms that protect peace than to actually speak and eventually feel for other people.  It is one thing not to actually murder or steal from someone else, but not to speak badly about them or to even feel happy for them is an entirely different matter.  In the second tablet, the mitzvos begin with the rudimentary rules of how to act towards other people, and it is from those actions that we are meant to ascend to levels of speech and even thoughts for other people.  

From a slightly different perspective, the sequence reflects on the fundamentals that define our relationship with God and other people.  Although it is true that the hierarchy indicates that action is the highest level of serving God, belief is the core principle upon which the entire relationship is contingent.  Belief is the value that creates a “trust” between us and God that despite all circumstances and mistakes we may make, we are still connected to God and strive to be better.  Without belief in God, keeping the Shabbos is a meaningless action that one can be experience in an entirely detached way.  With belief in God, one remains connected to God even in circumstances that they are unable to observe the Shabbos or even when they error and fail in their Shabbos observance.  There is an ironic paradox in this sequence; belief may come easiest, but it is still the core value in the relationship.  This same idea exists in the inverse when it comes to Man’s relationships with other people, as the core value of trust between people is that they will not harm each other.  If you threaten my safety or security, the very basis of our relationship is undermined.  Moreover, from a Halachic standpoint, the claims between one man and another are not within the realms of thought and feeling.  I have a right that you should not damage me, but I have no right that you should like me.  I cannot claim that you should not intend to hurt me, but I can collect for actual acts of damage that were unintended.  Much like keeping a Shabbos without belief in God doesn’t make sense, having good feelings for a person we are actually harming doesn’t make sense.  

Mon, November 29 2021 25 Kislev 5782