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Torah Sparks

Parashat Yitro
February 6, 2010 – 22 Shevat 5770

Annual (Ex. 18:1-20:23): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Triennial (Ex. 19:1-20:23): Etz Hayim p. 436; Hertz p. 290
Haftarah (Isaiah 6:1-13 [S]; 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6 [A]): Etz Hayim p. 451; Hertz p. 302

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) hears about the Exodus and what God has done for the Israelites and comes to visit his son-in-law, bringing Moses’ wife Zipporah and their sons with him. Jethro acknowledges God’s greatness and offers a sacrifice. The next day, Jethro sees Moses spending many hours answering the people’s questions and settling their disputes. He advises Moses to choose officers and judges to assist him. Jethro then returns to his home.

At the beginning of the third month after the Exodus, God tells Moses to instruct the people to prepare to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. On the appointed day, amid thunder and lightning, thick clouds, and the sound of a shofar, God speaks. The Ten Statements (Commandments) are given. The people are overwhelmed and terrified by God’s power and they ask Moses to serve as intermediary between God and the Israelites. Moses ascends the mountain and disappears into the clouds. God instructs Moses about the prohibition against idols and the proper construction of the altar.

1. The Most Difficult Mitzvah

Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land the Lord your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20:12)

  1. Our masters taught: There are three partners in a person: the Holy One, his father, and his mother. When a person honors his father and his mother, the Holy One says: I account it to them as though I were dwelling among them and they were honoring Me. (Talmud Kiddushin 30b)
  2. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Scripture puts the easiest of commandments on the same level as the most difficult of observances. The easiest of commandments – letting a mother bird go – and the most difficult of commandments – honoring father and mother. And with regard to each, it is written, “That your days may be long.” (Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1)
  3. (1) It is necessary to be very careful about honoring one’s father and mother and about fearing them. In any case the beit din does not compel with respect to the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim since it is a positive commandment that gives its reward indirectly, so the beit din does not compel with respect to it. ... (4) What is honor? Providing him food and drink, dressing and covering him, bringing him in and out. And he should provide for him with a pleasant face for even if he feeds him crammed bird every day and shows him an indifferent face he is punished for it. And so the opposite. If he makes his father grind in the mill and his intention is for good in order to save his father from something more difficult than this and he speaks solicitously to his father’s heart and shows him that his intention is for good until his father is reconciled to grinding in the mill, he acquires the world to come. ... (8) How far does honoring one’s father and mother extend? Even if they took his purse of gold coins and threw it into the sea in front of him, he should not rebuke them and he should not show pain before then and he should not be angry at them, but he should accept the enactment of Torah and be quiet. ... (10) One whose father or mother has become demented should try to behave with them according to their mental state until He will have mercy on them, and if it is impossible for him to bear because of their altered condition, he should go and leave them and appoint others to care for them as is fitting. ... (15) If his father told him to transgress words of Torah, whether a positive commandment or a negative commandment, or even a rabbinic commandment, he should not listen to him. ... (17) Men and women are equal with respect to honoring and fearing their father and mother, but since a woman is not free to do it since she is subject to her husband, she is exempt from honoring father and mother while she is still married, and if she is divorced or widowed, she is obligated. . . . (19) A man is forbidden to place a burdensome yoke on his children and to be exacting with them about his honor so that he should not place a stumbling block before them, but he should forgive and hide his eyes from them, for when the father forgoes his honor, his honor is forgone. (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 240, What Is Honor and What Is Fear and Their Regulations)
  4. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: When Rabbi Eliezer was asked, “How far should honoring one’s father and mother extend?” he replied, “Go and see what a certain heathen named Dama ben Netinah did for his father in Ashkelon. Once, the sages sought some precious stones from him for the ephod at a profit to him of sixty myriads [of gold dinars]. But the key to where the stones were kept was under his [sleeping] father’s pillow, and he would not disturb him.” The following year, however, the Holy One gave him his reward. A red heifer was born to him in his herd. When the sages of Israel visited him, he said to them, “I know about you. Even if I were to ask all the money in the world, you would pay me. But all I ask of you is the amount I lost because I honored my father.” Rabbi Hanina said: If one who is not commanded [to honor his parents] and nevertheless does is rewarded thus, how much more by far one who is commanded and does so! (Talmud Kiddushin 31a)

Sparks for Discussion

Why do you think we are commanded to honor our parents? How far does this extend? How should members of the “sandwich generation” balance their obligations to their parents and their children? Why do you think Rabbi Abba bar Kahana considers honoring parents the most difficult mitzvah? Kids sometimes ask why there is no commandment for parents to honor their children. How would you answer them?

2. Thou Shalt Not Steal

You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:13)

  1. The verse speaks of stealing people (kidnapping); “You shall not steal” (Leviticus 19:11) refers to stealing money. Or perhaps it is not so, but here it refers to stealing money and there to stealing people? You say, something is deduced from its context: Just as “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” speak of a matter that is punishable by death through the bet din, so “You shall not steal” is a matter that is punishable by death through the bet ein. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. This includes kidnapping, stealing property, and stealing a man’s mind (i.e., deception), although the main warning applies to kidnapping. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. The Torah does not specify anything specific that you may not steal, implying that the law applies to everything: money, lying to others (“stealing”) their opinions), and even lying to God. (Shakh (Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir ha-Kohen), 1621-1662, Lithuania and Poland)
  4. There are seven kinds of thieves: First among them is the one who steals a person’s mind: He who urges his neighbor to be his guest when in his heart he does not mean to invite him; he who frequently offers gifts to his neighbor knowing well that they will not be accepted; and he who makes his guest believe that he is opening a barrel of wine especially for him when in reality it had been sold to the retailer. Also one who cheats in measuring and swindles in weighing... And furthermore he is accounted as one who, if he could, would deceive the Most High. (Mekhilta Nezikin 13)

Sparks for Discussion

As the rabbis understood it, the prohibition “you shall not steal” has more applications than knocking over a convenience store or masterminding a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Our commentators include the prohibition of genevat daat – “stealing a person’s mind” that is, deception or misrepresentation. The first three cases cited by the Mekhilta involve no financial loss to the person who is deceived – what is being stolen here? Why do you think this “theft” is considered to be the equivalent of cheating and swindling someone in business? What is wrong with offering someone a ride home from a party when you know she came in her own car? How common is genevat daat in contemporary business practice? In social interactions?

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