Parshat Yitro

The Jewish people left Egypt on a Thursday, the 15th of Nissan. Seven days later they miraculously passed through the Reed Sea. From there they embarked on a 45-day trek to Mount Sinai, where they would forge the next step in their relationship with Hashem.

On the first day of Sivan they arrived at Mount Sinai. There, Hashem had appeared to Moshe in the burning bush, and told him that the Jewish people would return there to receive the Torah. On Shabbat, the 7th of Sivan, Hashem appeared on Mount Sinai and directed Moshe to ascend the mountain to receive the Torah.

This event caused the entire Jewish nation to become prophets who heard Hashem’s voice as He gave the first and second commandments. The Talmud tells us that the experience’s overwhelming spiritual intensity caused their souls to leave them, and they died after each commandment.  After Hashem revived them the second time, the people requested that Moshe relate the remaining commandments to them instead of their hearing them directly from Hashem, and Hashem agreed, whereupon Moshe conveyed the remaining eight commandments to the Jewish people.

The Torah’s 613 commandments are divided into two categories, מצות עשה  , positive mitzvot that command us to do something, such as affixing a mezuzah on our doorways, and מצות לא תעשה  , mitzvot that command us not to do something, like not eating meat and milk together. There are 248 “do’s” and 365 “don’t do’s.”

Each mitzvah is essential and we are told in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishna 1)

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ב

רבי אומר וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְּבַחֲמוּרָה, שֶׁאֵין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְוֹת

 Rebbe says, “Be as careful with a light mitzvah as you are with a heavy one, since you do not know the reward given for the mitzvot.”

If that’s the case, what makes the 10 commandments so special? Why are they singled out as something so important?

The 10 commandments comprise ten different categories under which the other 603 mitzvot fall. Rav Saadia Gaon (882-932) in ספר המצות  (Sefer Hamitzvot) his book that enumerates the mitzvot, grouped them into ten categories corresponding to the ten commandments. When the Jewish people received the ten commandments on Sinai, they also received the entire collection of mitzvot that Hashem prescribed.  Very often, when we refer to the “whole Torah,” we mean the entire complement of its commandments, the Torah’s full 613 mitzvot, not the whole sefer Torah with all its stories and events.

When the Jewish people received the Torah, the 613 mitzvot, on the 7th of Sivan, they did not receive the explanations and the details of how to fulfill them. Moshe had to remain in heaven for another 40 days to learn the Oral Torah, the particulars of how to fulfill the mitzvot, which he taught to the Jewish people upon his return.

In the evening prayer we say:

סדור תפלה נוסח אשכנז – סדר תפלת ערבית:

אַהֲבַת עוֹלָם בֵּית יִשְֹרָאֵל עַמְּךָ אָהָבְתָּ. תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים אוֹתָנוּ לִמַּדְתָּ.

You have shown eternal love to your nation Israel by giving them the Torah and Mitzvot, and teaching us your laws.

The greatest manifestation of Hashem’s eternal love for His people is the gift of Torah that He gave only to us. How are we to understand this? What is so great about the Torah and its very restricting and numerous 613 commandments?

In today’s technologically advanced world, every new gadget comes with an instruction manual whose thickness depends on how many features the new device has. The manufacturer has taken much care and trouble to engineer into that device as many neat features as possible, and they want you to use and enjoy each one of them. If you don’t know that they are there, or how to use them properly, that gadget is only going to frustrate you! So, they provide a clear and extensive manual that illustrates all the device’s many features to provide the maximum use and enjoyment from it. The manual will also contain instructions on what not to do with your new gadget, so that you don’t ruin it the first time you use it. That would not be pretty. They want you to use and enjoy their product completely, at least until the next one comes out.  That will be very good for their business because happy customers will bring more happy customers.

Hashem has given us the most precious commodity possible, a life. He has endowed us with a myriad of talents and qualities that we are to use to make life exciting, engaging, productive, and meaningful. We have a mind capable of learning and then applying the knowledge to all kinds of situations. We have a heart capable of love and hate. We have limbs capable of crafting the most exquisite creations or committing the most atrocious acts. So where is the manual for the most complex and sophisticated gadget on the planet, the human being? Where are the instructions on how to use life in the most productive and fulfilling way? Could our manufacturer have forgotten to include the instruction booklet? Of course not! The Torah is the instruction booklet! It has the instructions on how to use your every talent and endowment in the most productive and fulfilling way. It has clear instructions on how to act in every situation so that you are using your life to bring forth the most good, both for yourself and for your fellow human beings.

The Torah’s commandments are not a random, unrelated list of do’s and don’ts that a person has to perform. Executing a list of exercises and rituals that have no meaning or relevance is a very difficult task, since a person is not a robot and derives no satisfaction from going through rote actions. On the contrary, the mitzvot are a system of exercises designed by our Creator to build us into perfect people. They comprise the structure within which a human being will thrive. By combining with, and complementing, each other, they create a wholesome, complete, meaningful, and rich way of life. And, because they touch every aspect of our lives and give direction and significance even to the otherwise average and mundane, life is full of accomplishment and growth.

There is a concept that applies to all the laws of the Torah. (Proverbs 3:17)


ספר משלי פרק ג

(יז) דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלום

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace.

Providing us with the secrets of how to derive life’s maximum benefit is Hashem’s goal in giving us the Torah. Follow the Torah’s instructions and you will have a pleasant life. There are so many paths that one could follow, each beckoning with the promise great happiness and fulfillment. But who came up with them? People who know nothing about anything. Did they create themselves such that they know how they work and what will make them happy? This information can come only from the manufacturer, for only he knows every nook and cranny of the product that he created, and what makes it tick.

This truth, that the Torah brings out the best in us, is something that the people who live the Torah way of life feel and experience every moment of their lives. They experience first-hand how in tune and sensitive the Torah is to human nature and human needs.  They feel extremely privileged to be able to live a lifestyle that is replete with goodness and richness.

Hashem could have created an entire universe just like this one, for each human being on the planet. He didn’t because we were created to need and live with other people. We are social creatures who need, to thrive, to build relationships with others.  No person is an island, and a lack of friends and socialization leads to depression. Relationships can also make the world of a difference when a person is going through difficult times.

The Torah’s first mitzvah is to marry and have children. You must have relationships! The Torah also provides the structure and platform upon which those relationships will be built.  Hashem created the world to bestow goodness upon us, and we must learn that essential trait. We must create our own little world, a family, where we provide for others. In this microcosm of society, we train ourselves in the art of giving and bestowing goodness upon others instead of extracting whatever we can from them. Caring for others makes a person better. The laws of proper speech– not insulting or speaking negatively about others, or not hurting someone’s feelings– are taught and practiced in the home. This social training spills over to other social interactions outside the house to the world at large. A family that fulfills these laws of the Torah and lives harmoniously together, forges the strongest possible bonds and relationships. These relationships last a lifetime and support their bearers through thick and thin.

Because Hashem knows deeply the nature of the soul that He gave us, He has placed a tremendous emphasis in the Torah on how we are to treat one another. “Love your fellow as yourself” is but the tip of the iceberg. There are so many laws governing what we are permitted to say about people and not to tarnish their reputation. Only the Torah makes the statement: “If you humiliate someone in public, you have killed them, and you forfeit your place in the world to come.” If you were to shoot him, you wouldn’t lose your place in the world to come; only if you embarrass him. Shooting him kills his body, while humiliating him kills his soul. There are numerous other instructions about proper speech, pure of any malice or harm to a fellow human being.

Hashem tells us in His Torah to visit the sick, because having created us, He knows what it is like to be sick and feel alone and vulnerable. Hashem tells us in His Torah to comfort the bereaved, because He knows what it feels like to lose a loved one. Hashem repeatedly tells us to give charity and support the poor because He knows what it feels like to be poor. He created us, and He created the Torah as the manual for how to use our lives for the greatest good.

Despite its breadth, the Torah contains nothing that is beyond human ability. Hashem knows that He made man with limitations, and He never exceeds those limitations with a demand that is beyond man’s ability.

The Torah also builds within a person strong self- discipline, an essential component for success in any area of life. With the different temptations that present themselves at every stage of life, a person without strong self – discipline may easily fall prey to them and find himself in trouble.

In a study, they gave children a candy and told them that they could eat it now if they wanted to, but, if they waited 10 minutes before eating it, they would receive a second candy. Following the children through life, they discovered that the children who waited for the second candy were 90% more successful than those who ate the candy at the first opportunity. It is not hard to understand how discipline breeds success.

An African American woman with her child in her shopping cart stood in line at the checkout counter at a store in Lakewood, NJ. The child took a candy from the display and was wailing that he wanted it. The mother admonished her child, “Put it back! It’s not kosher!” whereupon the child dutifully put the candy back.  An Orthodox Jewish woman who saw this asked her, “You keep kosher?” “No!” came the response, “but I see all the Jewish people do it and it works for them, so I figured I would try it!”

The Torah addresses every single good quality and character trait in a person, and provides exercises to build and strengthen them.

Vacations are big business. People just need to get away for a change in scenery and a break in the monotony of the everyday grind. Many people work a whole year for two or three weeks of vacation. They look forward to that vacation for months before and talk about it for months after. Thus, they endure the monotony of the whole year because they can always focus on their amazing vacation.

The Torah prescribes a vacation every single week – The Shabbat. It is a vacation like no other, an oasis in the middle of a desert. It creates a break in the action so complete that it is as if you have gone to another planet. There is no connection to your previous life, and no matter how busy or harried you were, when Shabbat descends upon your home, everything stops, and tranquility and calm set in for the next 24 hours. Whew! What a relief! You can now focus on the really important things in life – your spouse and children, and your spiritual needs. This is sacred time.

When the captain of a shipwreck washed up on the shore of an island, he was found and nursed back to health by a religious Jewish family. The captain was placed to recuperate on the sofa, and he woke up from his deep sleep on Friday night. From his position on the couch, and unbeknown to them, he was able to observe the host family as they sat around their dining room table enjoying their Shabbat dinner. He observed the family parents and children, all dressed in the finest formal clothing, seated at a table covered with a lace tablecloth, set with fine china and silverware. There was wine was on the table and candles were burning. A five-course dinner was served, and conversation and singing were interspersed throughout without any concern for time. They were totally engrossed in each other without a care in the world. After observing this rare scene for a while, he was convinced that he had woken up in the royal palace. Where else does a family sit together in such royalty and just enjoy each other as if the rest of the world does not exist?

When Shabbat weekly settles in, it brings with it an extra bonus, a נשמה יתירה  – an added dimension to one’s soul, which gives a person greater spiritual sensitivity on Shabbat enabling him to experience the holiness of Shabbat more acutely. This intangible but real perk of Shabbat is part of what makes the Shabbat experience so addicting; one just feels different on Shabbat.

This idea brings us to a new concept relevant to the performance of the other mitzvot as well. The human being is a synthesis of a material body and a heavenly soul. Just as a person must eat properly to maintain his health and nourish his body, so, too, he must maintain and nourish his soul. We know very well what the food for the body is, but what nourishes the soul? The soul needs spiritual food! The answer is the Torah and the mitzvot, which comprise spiritual power pills.

According to the Torah, a person has 248 limbs and 365 veins and sinews in his body. Do these numbers look familiar to you? These are the numbers that combine to equal 613 mitzvot, 248 positive and 365 “don’t dos.“ There is indeed a correlation, but one step is missing.

Just as a garment is cut to the size of the person it is made to cover, so, too, a person’s soul is cut to the size of his physical dimensions. Since there is a component of the soul for every part of the body, his soul has 248 spiritual components corresponding to his limbs and 365 spiritual components corresponding to his veins and sinews. Each of the 613 mitzvot corresponds to one of the spiritual limbs or sinews of a person and nourishes it. So, when a person does a mitzvah with his hands, say, he puts on tefillin, he is feeding the component of his soul that corresponds to his hand. This gives a deeper understanding of how the Torah and mitzvot keep a person happy. Since both body and soul are properly nourished, he is content and satisfied.

This is what is meant in the verse from Proverbs quoted earlier: “and all its pathways are peace.”

Peace is a reflection of the perfect balance between two opposite forces that coexist without conflict. The Torah and mitzvot provide the perfect balance for the human being since they supply the necessary nutrients to both the body and soul.

Have you ever seen a body builder on the cover of a muscle magazine? They have followed a system of exercises that is designed to target each of their muscles to build and tone it. Through repetition, and over a long time, they have built and toned every muscle in their body to perfection. This is an accurate metaphor for the mitzvot. Each one builds and tones one of our spiritual limbs or sinews. Imagine how comical this muscle-man would look if he neglected to perform the group of exercises corresponding to his legs. You would see a massive torso sitting upon two chicken legs, which probably wouldn’t even support his weight.

This represents one aspect of how, by giving us the Torah, Hashem has shown us the ultimate expression of His love for us. He has provided us with the ultimate instruction booklet on how to live life to the max with peace and happiness. It would be wise to read the instructions first in this case, instead of applying the usual approach, “if all else fails, read the directions.”

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