OzTorah: Torah reading – Yitro

OzTorah submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

                                                         IT JUST CAN’T HAPPEN!

The Ten Plagues. The Ten Commandments. Both are miraculous. The miracle of the plagues was brought about by God. The miracle of the commandments will be brought about by man.

If anyone had been told that water would turn into blood, that all the firstborn would die, they would have said,

“Impossible! Things like that just don’t happen!”

But they did happen, and that was the miracle that released the Israelites from bondage.

Think about the Ten Commandments. No murder, no stealing, no twisting of the truth… Ask anyone if such things are possible and they will tell you,

“Not a chance! Such things will never happen!”

But they can, and they will – if human beings want them enough.

The Midrash in P’sikta d’Rav Kahana says that when the Torah informs us that the Israelites did not pass through “derech eretz P’lishtim”, “the way of the land of the Philistines” (Ex. 13:17), there is another way of translating “derech eretz”… not as “the trans-Philistine highway” but “the way of the land, the way things usually happen”.

If people can think out of the box and change the tired old sinful way that human society works, the Ten Commandments can come true and the world will be redeemed.


There has always been criticism of the Second Commandment with its assertion that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children (Ex. 20:5).

Not only does it sound unfair, but it is directly contradicted by the Book of D’varim, which says,

“Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children for their parents: each shall be put to death for his own wrongdoing” (Deut. 24:16).

Ezekiel says,

“The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, nor the father the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be with his own self and the wickedness of the wicked shall be with his own self” (Ezek. 18:19).

Sforno tells us that in ancient history the king punished not only those who personally rebelled against him, but the members of their families too. In Assyria the relatives of someone who committed bloodshed could be punished. In Babylon there was a similar rule in relation to the family of a builder who put up a house that collapsed.

This made Judaism highly uneasy. The Targum explains the Second Commandment by adding, “…if the children continue the evil ways of their fathers”. Ibn Ezra says that the Hebrew “poked” in Ex. 20:5 is to be translated not as “visits” but “remembers”. If the child does evil, God remembers that there is a family tradition and brings it to be bear upon the fate of the child – but if the child overcomes a family taint, God does not punish him for what the parent has done but works backwards and uses the child’s good deeds to mitigate the effect of the parent’s wrongdoing.

It goes without saying that the principle of “No extension of guilt” is or ought to be still very much part of Biblical ethics.

                                                       EAGER OR RELUCTANT?

There are two views about the giving of the Torah. One view says that the Israelites accepted the Torah willingly when they said “Na’aseh v’nishma”, “We will obey and we will hearken” (Ex. 24:7).

The other view argues that the people were reluctant; therefore God upended the mountain over them and said,

“If you accept the Torah, all will be well, but if you refuse, ‘sham t’heh k’vurat’chem’, ‘there your graves will be’”.

According to another version God said,

“If you accept the Torah, you will survive, but if not, I will turn the world back to chaos, ‘tohu vavohu’” (Shabbat 88a; Rashi to Ex. 19:17).

Which view is correct? Were the people eager – or reluctant? The answer is probably, “Both!” The odds are that they were ambivalent. One group were prepared to go ahead and make a commitment, whilst others held back and said, “Don’t rush in – are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”

Arrival at the Red Sea produced the same dilemma; one group advocated a bold commitment – “Let’s stride into the water” – whilst another counselled caution and prudence – “Let’s wait and see!”

Human experience often oscillates between “yes” and “maybe”. God’s threat to bury the people alive if they did not accept the Torah, or alternatively to turn the world back to chaos, was a necessary shake-up for our ancestors. It’s no less relevant to our age of confusion and uncertainty. Full commitment frightens some people, but holding back and refusing to act can be a worse option and threaten our very survival and the future of our civilisation.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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