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Yitro(Exodus 18-20)

Who Says I Have To?

The event that dominates not merely the Parsha, but the entirety of Jewish history, is the Encounter at Sinai and the delivery and acceptance of the Ten Commandments. Much of the Parsha describes the process of negotiations that preceded the fateful meeting. This indicates that Torah commandments were negotiated. It is difficult to relate to the idea of negotiated commandments without understanding what a Divine commandment implies.

To help us appreciate the special twist imparted to Torah commandments by virtue of their divine origin, let us consider the sixth of the Ten Commandments, 'Thou shalt not murder.' Why don't we kill other people? Are we deterred from killing other human beings by the secular law or religious commandment that forbids murder? Of course not! Most normal people would never consider killing another human being under any circumstances. Those that are ready to consider it are certainly not deterred by the existence of the law against killing but by the fear of the consequences. Commandments never enter the picture.

 

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ON WHAT BASIS DOES GOD ISSUE COMMANDS?

In light of this apparent irrelevance, it is fair to wonder on what basis God commands us? When He wants us to do Mitzvot that we would do on our own anyway, there is no need to command us at all, and when He imposes Mitzvot that prescribe actions that we have no human tendency to perform, there is no point to commanding us. The command aspect of such Mitzvot will sway no one. What He ought to do is explain the consequences of non-compliance and leave the rest to us. If we believe what He tells us and wish to avoid the threatened consequences, then we will observe His Mitzvot or at least those whose non-compliance is fraught with consequences that terrify us. Otherwise, we will do as we please. How do we relate to the idea of being commanded?

Perhaps the key lies in status. Slaves can be commanded. Now, it is true that we consider ourselves Avdei Hashem, God's servants, but surely this status is a purely voluntary one, isn't it? After all, we all know that our chief claim to spiritual merit is that we, unlike the other nations, were willing to accept the Torah voluntarily, and declare na'aseh venishma, literally 'we will do even if we don't always understand.' A voluntary slave is not really a slave you can order around. As soon as he doesn't like one of the master's orders, he will quit.

 

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WHY DID GOD ONLY COERCE THE JEWS?

Of course, we are powerless to prevent God from forcibly enslaving us if He so desired. After all, He created us and keeps us alive, and is free to set His own conditions for continuing to deliver these services. But if He is willing to resort to coercion, then why did He only coerce the Jews? He could have coerced everyone.

Indeed, the Talmud (Avoda Zara 2b) specifically states that this precisely is what the nations will claim on Judgment day: God should have coerced them into accepting the Torah. For although the Jews volunteered, in the end they were also coerced. The identical passage of Talmud informs us that God suspended Mt. Sinai over the Jews after their na'aseh venishma and told them, "Either you accept the Torah here and now or I will bury you all instantly by dropping the mountain on your heads!" Thus the nations will claim discrimination of coercion!

Of course, there is a difference. While the Jews were also coerced, they volunteered to be coerced, while the nations did not. But the nations do not find this distinction persuasive and for good reason. God has demonstrated His perfect readiness to coerce humans without paying the slightest regard to their refusal to submit themselves voluntarily to His coercion.

 

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GOD'S WILLINGNESS TO COERCE IS DEMONSTRATED BY THE FLOOD

There are seven commandments known as the Noachide Laws which are binding on all human beings. These laws were issued as flat fiats by God. There was no negotiation with man concerning their acceptance nor did man ever voluntarily choose to accept them, yet this did not deter God from inundating and destroying the entire civilized world in the Great Deluge for the failure to observe them. He seems to have no commitment to a policy of non-coercion.

Yet, in spite of the apparent contradiction of the Noachide Laws, the selection of the Jews to serve as the recipients of the Mitzvot seems to be based on the willingness factor; we were the only humans who were willing to volunteer to be coerced. Apparently, this voluntary aspect is a necessity of being chosen to receive the 613 Mitzvot even though it is an irrelevant factor in being compelled to abide by the Noachide law.

 

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WHY IS VOLUNTEERING ONLY A FACTOR REGARDING SINAIC LAWS?

 

  1. What is the difference? Why is the volunteer factor more essential in the case of the Sinaic Mitzvot?

     

     

  2. How do we relate to the idea of voluntary coercion anyway? Either you volunteer or you are coerced. How can anyone be simultaneously both volunteered and coerced?

 

We can gain some insight by studying the difference between the Noachide and the Sinaic laws from a different angle. Let us begin by considering how we would logically interpret God's creation of the world as Noachide people who have the obligation of complying with the seven Noachide commandments, and contrast this conclusion with the way the world appears to Jews who are burdened by the obligation of carrying out the 613 Sinaic laws.

 

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THE NOACHIDE PURPOSE OF CREATION

As a Noachide person I am commanded by God to adhere to a set of laws which on examination prove to be substantially identical to the universal code of behavior accepted as the norm by all civilized societies. [This may not be a coincidence. A major factor behind the universal acceptance of these norms is probably the vestigial species memory of the bitter experience of the flood.] As people tend to live within the strictures imposed by these norms as a matter of course in any case, no one could consider the compliance with the Noachide laws at all burdensome.

If I am a Noachide person who believes that God created the world, and I ask myself what God expects of me, I am bound to conclude that He doesn't expect much. After all, He only asked me to do the very things that I am genetically or culturally inclined to do anyway.

So what am I to conclude then, as a Noachide person, concerning God's purpose in creating the word in light of the extremely modest demands that God has made of me? I am bound to reach the conclusion that He created the world for me to enjoy. I can visualize Him saying to me, "Go and have a good time, son, just stay out of obvious trouble!" The Noachide person doesn't have to do anything to justify the reception of the wonderful gift of creation except to behave like a civilized person.

 

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THE PURPOSE OF CREATION FROM A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE

But what if I am Jewish and have the obligation of observing 613 Mitzvot? I can hardly reach the same conclusion. Far from having been presented with a world to enjoy, every Jew is burdened by the obligation of learning the Torah and keeping a set of very demanding Mitzvot. A fully observant Jew has no spare time to allocate to simple enjoyment and relaxation. There is always some Mitzvah that summons him and even if there is no Mitzvah on the immediate horizon, there is always the ever-present obligation to study Torah sitting on his head.

Any time a Jew sets aside for relaxation must be justified on the grounds of necessity. Most human beings, however, are incapable of ceaseless focus and application. Therefore we are therefore permitted to set aside the relaxation time we require to recharge our spiritual batteries.

But if God blesses an individual Jew with the extraordinary ability to focus possessed by the great sages of Israel such as the Gaon of Vilna or Rabbi Akiva Eiger, then the obligation to learn Torah consumes relaxation time altogether. It is told of the Gaon that he kept a notebook in which he meticulously recorded what he considered to be his wasted moments. On Yom Kippur eve he would take out the notebook and cry bitter tears of Teshuva [repentance]over his sin of Bitul Torah [waste of time]. Tradition has it that the total never reached the ten-minute mark in any year!

Looking at the world from the Jewish perspective, I am forced to conclude that God created the world so that I could accomplish something with it. The world is not my apple to simply enjoy, although as we shall shortly discover, there is a very interesting paradox in this apparent limitation. Upon analysis, it turns out that the very fact that Jews must do something with the world besides simply enjoying existence renders it possible for a Jew to enjoy life to a depth and with an intensity that a non-Jew could never hope to equal. Let us proceed slowly, step by careful step.

As the vehicle of discovery that Jews must do something with the world was the imposition on them of the burden of the 613 Mitzvot, it follows that the Mitzvot themselves must have something to do with what we Jews are supposed to do with the world. How can we define this relationship precisely?

 

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WHO IS THE BENEFICIARY OF MITZVOT

For whose benefit were we given the Mitzvot? As God, by definition, is already perfect and lacks nothing, the performance of the Mitzvot cannot bring Him any benefit. The beneficiaries of the Mitzvot must therefore be the very people who perform them. But if they are for our benefit, not God's, how can we relate to the idea that God commanded us to perform them?

As God demonstrated that He insists on the Mitzvot even though they bring Him no benefit by issuing them as commandments, we must interpret His insistence as a condition of creation; He wants to be in a position to confer the benefits that the performance of the Mitzvot provide to human beings. It is only the conference of these benefits that makes it worth God's while to involve Himself with creation in the first place. He did not consider the creation of a world in which He was unable to offer the benefits that the Mitzvot provide worth His energy and time.

 

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GOD IS A PERFECTIONIST

On reflection, this makes a lot of sense. Being perfect Himself, it isn't surprising to discover that God is also a perfectionist. As He created the world for man to enjoy, He insists on the ability to confer perfect enjoyment. Perfect enjoyment is only to be found in close communion with the world's only Perfect Being, that is to say God Himself. This communion is precisely what the Mitzvot are all about. They are God's idea of worthwhile human behavior. Whoever performs a Mitzvah is acting as God's agent, and responding to His direct orders. This, by definition is communion with God.

This conclusion provides the answer to a very perplexing question that must confront all Noachides. As we have concluded that the Noachides must have been given the world to simply enjoy, it must occur to them to ask why God didn't give them a world that could be enjoyed more fully. The world we inhabit is full of travail and misery. If God created the world and He is by definition omnipotent, surely He could have done a better job and given man a more user-friendly world, seeing that the provision of an enjoyable world was His purpose in engaging in the exercise of creation in the first place?

Understanding the answer to this question requires total clarity about the points that have been made so far, so let us sum up where we are to make sure that we avoid confusion.

 

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SUMMING UP THE INPUTS

 

  1. There are two groups of human beings in the world, Noachide people and Jews.

     

     

  2. The Noachide people were given the world to enjoy whereas the Jews were given the world to do something with.

     

     

  3. This task that Jews were assigned turns out to be the performance of Mitzvot.

     

     

  4. The purpose of the performance of Mitzvot is to arm God with the ability to offer perfect enjoyment of the world to the Jews who perform the Mitzvot.

     

     

  5. Being a perfectionist Himself, God is not satisfied with a world that provides less than perfect enjoyment.

     

     

  6. Granting God this ability, the resources from which He can confer perfect enjoyment on human beings, was an essential condition of creation.

 

 

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TWO SORTS OF ENJOYMENT

It turns out, therefore, that while God created the world for man to enjoy, there are two sorts of enjoyment. If we contrast the enjoyments with each other we find that God offers the enjoyment provided by the Noachide world entirely free of charge without the need of any human response. But the perfect enjoyment made possible by the performance of the Sinaic Mitzvot requires the assistance and active co-operation of human beings. The perfect enjoyment on offer consists of communion with the Perfect Being. Since there is nothing less enjoyable than being compelled to keep company with anyone, the only way to offer this perfect enjoyment is for human beings to choose it freely.

However, in order to be in a position to freely choose whether to keep God company, one must have the alternative of choosing not to be in God's company at all. But wherever God is absent there is a lack of perfection by definition; human beings must therefore live in a less than perfect world. But a less than perfect world is only so because of all the unpleasant things which are a part of it. If this world was entirely free of travail and tragedy, and inundated with perfect joy, it would be perfect, and there would be no getting away from God's company at all.

 

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THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS COME FROM THE NEED TO MAKE CHOICES

We now have the answer to the source of all the problems in the world. The Jew cannot live in a perfect world because he must do something with the world, which means he must freely choose to commune with God by doing the Mitzvot. To have this freedom of choice there must be a way of living without communing with God. The Jewish world cannot be perfect, as perfection comes from God and living in a perfect world would necessarily force all its inhabitants into communion with God. As the Jew and the Noachide share a common world, the Noachide human being must also live in this less than perfect world so that the Jew can choose to do Mitzvot freely.

 

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VOLUNTARY COMMANDMENTS

We are finally fully equipped to deal with the apparent inner contradiction of voluntary commandments. The commandments are truly commandments because they are a necessity of existence. God has no interest in a world without Mitzvot because the perfect joy of communion with God does not exist in such a world. But they must be voluntarily accepted because if they were coerced then even communion with God could not possibly provide perfect joy. Enforced relationships cannot be perfect by definition.

However, there is no need for mankind as a species to accept the Sinaic commandments. As long as a single nation is willing to accept them voluntarily, God has the opportunity to provide perfect joy to some human beings. Numbers don't mean all that much to God. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4,5) states that God created only one man, Adam, initially to teach you that He considers the entire creation worthwhile as long as there is a single human being who can enjoy it perfectly.

 

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DON'T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH

Once the Jews voluntarily submitted themselves to the necessity of Torah, the world can exist for everyone to enjoy. It may not be perfect for the Noachide, but who is he to look a gift horse in the mouth?

In fact this same question can be posed to all those who reject the idea of a creator on the grounds of the evil in the world. You start talking to them about God and they answer with the Holocaust. Are you willing to do something with the world besides simply enjoy it? If you are not, then why are you looking at a gift horse in the mouth? If you are, then why don't you find out how to fix the evil? How do you know that that is not the very task you were set? In fact, if you ponder this essay, you will see that that is precisely the definition of the human task.

Published: January 26, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Steve, February 2, 2013 8:30 PM

Great Questions, answers?

The questions that were asked are very profound, but I found that they were either not answered or the answer just goes over my head, I would really love to see you rewrite this article, and answer the questions you raise so that we could understand it.

(4) Mordechai Cohen, February 4, 2010 6:03 PM

Nation of Priests

If, as we are told, we are a nation of priests, why then do we not prostaletize? why do we not "convert", do mission work and preach? Why do we keep these blessings to ourselves?

(3) Keith Burnett, February 1, 2002 12:00 AM

Sitting on my head?

Excellent article Rabbi. However, I think I will pass on the obligation to study Torah sitting on my head.

(2) Anonymous, February 1, 2002 12:00 AM

I know that the Jews believe that they are the only ones required to observe the 613 mitzvot by obligation. But does it really end there as your article implies? Is there not a more profound reason as displayed in this weeks parsha? I find it interesting that in the most important parsha of the Torah--G-d giving His devine instructions, we also see it combined with the deepest of conversions. Is there not a strong correlation there? As a "Noahide person", i.e. non-Jew, did G-d not desire that the Jews act as a nation of priests to the world, to show them that there was a living G-d and lead them also into this deeper relationship with G-d through His Torah? Is this not one of the lessons of this weeks parsha which tells of Yitro leaving his worship of false, dead g-ds, and discovering the wonder of the true living G-d? Would not all Noahide people similarly profit from the deeper relationship of observing the 613 mitzvot and loving G-d with all their hearts? I know our family is. As we have only begun to study Torah and keep Shabbat and the Festivals, and learn Kashrut we've discovered a wonderful thing. The deeper the understanding of G-d, the deeper the desire for more. Nothing else satisfies.

Good Shabbos

(1) Peggy Pryor, January 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Love this

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