This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Noam Weinreich (SBM 2014)
This week’s Parsha Yitro ends on a puzzling note. After giving the “Ten Commandments” and making some final narrative comments (20:15-18), it seems like a perfect opportunity to end the Parsha, and indeed a section break appears right there. However our Parsha continues for an additional five pesukim (19-23). In them, G-d says not to create “gods of silver and gods of gold.” Rather, Bnai Yisrael should build “an altar of earth” and make sacrifices upon them. Additionally, if they make stone altars, “cut stones” cannot be used and those who ascend to the altar must not expose their nakedness.
Assuming that the Parsha is a single unit and there should be some thematic connection between the various sections, how does this section fit with what preceded it? Granted, much of the Parsha dealt with Bnai Yisrael’s unique relationship with G-d, and the second commandment explicitly forbids idolatry, but this does not explain why these commandments should be found here, as an epilogue to the Ten Commandments. It seems the second commandment is exactly where the prohibition against gold and silver idols should have been included! Furthermore the specific commandments pertaining to the types of stones which are usable for an altar, and the proscription of nakedness on the altar seem out of place.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a fascinating explanation, but first it is important to mention another idea of his. In his comment on verses 19 and 20, he writes that after being given the commandments by G-d, and being spoken to directly by Him, Bnai Yisrael should realize we do not need to make representations of G-d and put them on this earth. After the revelation at Har Sinai, Bnai Yisrael should not feel the need for any intermediaries to connect to G-d. Rav Hirsch then asks, if this is so, why do we have so much symbolism in our tradition? He claims this symbolism is not to represent the Divine on earth, but actually to “show man the human traits that He demands of him.” In other words, the purpose of the many symbols found within our religious practice is not to try to make a model of heaven on earth, but in trying to learn the proper actions and behaviors here, on this earth.
Rav Hirsch claims that what these final verses are coming to teach us is that our worship of G-d (on the altar) is not about G-d Himself, but about our relationship to G-d, as well as our relationship to each other, and to ourselves. To further his point, he suggests that these final commandments are specifically in reference to the three “Cardinal Sins”: Avodah Zarah, Shefichat Damim, and Giluy Arayot. The commandment not to make gold or silver idols is obviously connected to Avodah Zarah, the commandment against using stones carved with swords is related to Shefichat Damim, and the commandment against revealing nakedness on the altar is related to Giluy Arayot.
What is the significance of these three cardinal sins? Rav Hirsch in general has a theory that these three sins are related to the three spheres of human relationships, between G-d and man (Avodah Zarah), between man and man (Shefichat Damim), and between man and himself (Giluy Arayot). Each of these three sins represents the ultimate perversion of one of these relationships. So these specific laws are coming to teach us that in the context of the altar, arguably the ultimate tool for expressing our relationship the G-d, we must emphasize that the purpose of the Torah is not to create a Divine figure on this earth, but to sanctify our concrete and real human relationships.
It is easy for us to think of religion as unrelated to the everyday life of man, merely confined to the supernal realms and divinity. However, this Parsha teaches us that fundamentally, the Torah is not about the heavens, but about earth. Even while worshipping G-d through the altar, the goal is not to be concerned with what happens in the realm of G-d, but rather the human relationship with Him, as well as all of our other relationships. This is arguably the theme of the Ten Commandments, and so makes for a perfect epilogue to this Parsha. This Parsha reminds us that even after revelation, our goal is to be human, albeit the best humans we can be.
Noam Weinreich is currently a freshman at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.