Yitro: Yes and No

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe lei'mor is the most commonly occurring verse of the Bible. While it is usually translated as, “G-d spoke to Moshe, saying”, our rabbis saw additional meaning in the word lei'mor. If it only meant “saying”, then it would be superfluous; if the Torah tells us that G-d spoke to Moshe, then surely something was said.

Rather, our Sages understood lei'mor to mean to repeat or to respond. Moshe should not assume that when G-d spoke to him, it was to remain confidential (a most reasonable assumption); rather, he was to repeat G-d's word to the people of Israel. Our religion is not one where the elite have exclusive access to the Almighty. Rather, each and every Jew—“the leaders, elders, every Israelite…from the woodcutters to the water-drawers” (Devarim 29:9-10)—must develop a personal connection to G-d.

Such an explanation of this most overlooked word would seem difficult to maintain in light of the introductory verse to the aseret hadibrot, “And G-d spoke all these words, 'saying' lei'mor” (Shemot 20:1). To whom were the Jewish people to repeat the words of the Decalogue? The entire people of Israel were witness to the divine revelation! It is this difficulty that led Rashi to comment that after each of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people responded by agreeing to accept the divine command. The Mechilta, the rabbinic commentary to sefer Shemot on which Rashi's comment is based, quotes a seemingly meaningless dispute between Rabbi Yishmoel and Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Yishmoel is of the opinion that the Jewish people, upon hearing positive commands—honouring one’s parents, to pick one example—would answer yes, we will obey, and upon hearing a negative command would answer no, we won't violate that law; or in the more beautiful Hebrew, they said: al hen, hen; v'al lav, lav. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that the Jewish people answered al hen, hen; v'al lav, hen; yes, we will obey, to both positive and negative commandments. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik brilliantly explains that this seemingly trivial dispute actually reflects a fundamental disagreement regarding our approach to divine commandments. Rabbi Yishmael claims that when the Jews heard a negative command, they instinctively responded that no, of course we will not do this terrible act. They fully affirmed and agreed with the divine command. Rabbi Akiva, however, is of the opinion that while the Jewish people agreed to accept the divine command, they did not always do so willingly. In effect, they told G-d that yes, we will obey even though we may not agree.

These two great sages argued whether the highest level of religiosity is expressed by agreement with, or obedience to, the divine lawgiver.

Interestingly, Rashi quotes only the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael: that the Jews willingly accepted the divine command with no reservations. It was Maimonides, in his introduction to Pirkei Avot, who accepted the validity and preference of observing mitzvot while still wishing that one did not have to. He distinguished, not between positive and negative commandments, but between those of an ethical nature and those of a ritual nature. With regards to the former, one should lovingly embrace the divine command. It is less than ideal to declare, how I wish I could steal, but I won't because it violates the divine will! One should develop one's character to the point that stealing becomes abhorrent to us.

However, when it comes to the rituals of Judaism, it is most appropriate to say that I follow them only because G-d has commanded me to do so. One may desire to eat a cheeseburger—the wish is no reflection on the inherent character of a person—yet refrain from doing so only because G-d says so. One need not agree with all aspects of the Torah—provided that in the end, one follows the divine imperative.

Sadly, it appears to me that many have reversed this approach of the Rambam. All too often, we display great fervour and excitement in accepting the rituals of Judaism—searching, as many do, for more and more stringencies. However, some of the most basic ethical commands are a struggle for many, and it is here that many resent the demanding ethical standards of the Torah.

For modern man, imbued with the notion of intellectual honesty, freedom from coercion, and even separation of church and state, obeying a command with which one disagrees is most difficult. Yet the Divine word demands that we accept that which we may not understand and strive to make the ethical imperatives of the Torah second nature to us.