Parashat Yitro | Adath Israel

One of the few parshiot in which the triennial and the annual readings are the same. The reason is that the 10 commandments or aseret hadibrot, figure in them – we would not imagine having a year in which you don’t read about the revelation at Sinai.


Well, and there is the joke about Joe Cohen. His alarm went off and he said the famous words “just five more minutes”. When he woke up he was 30 minutes late for an important meeting. He puts on a suit and runs out the door. He gets stuck in traffic and as he arrives at the company’s parking lot he is still 25 minutes late. He looks for a parking space and finds none. Zilch. Having driven around the lot and checked out each potential space, he stops his car in desperation and looks up towards the heavens. He is not a religious man in the least but he cries out:

“Dear God, if you please just give me a parking spot I promise I will go to synagogue every week, will only eat kosher food, and I’ll follow every single one of the 10 commandments, just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give me a vacant spot so that I won’t lose my job!”

Miraculously, a parking spot opens up right by the front of the building. He then looks back up to the heavens and says, “never mind I just found one!”

I love this joke, and a British rabbi, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, is the one that told that to me.


Look at the asaret hadibrot, popularly known as the ten commandments.

~ Why do you think the Jewish tradition does not call these 10 commandments, which would be aseret hamitzvot, but aseret hadibrot, or aseret hadevarim, the ten sayings?

~ Which one is the hardest, in your opinion?

~ How would you categorize or divide the aseret hadibrot? Be creative, there are at least three different ways.


So the first thing that I wanted us to notice is that by calling the 10 commandments Aseret Hadibrot our tradition tries to connect them with the story of creation which, if you count, has ten “and God said”. Ten sayings and ten sayings – so there is this message that the entire creation is upheld by those actions or refraining from these specific actions.


This is the easiest way of dividing the Asret Hadevarim – positive and negative.

Another way is “God’s name is mentioned” and “God’s name is not mentioned”.

Another way is “bein Adam Lamakom” – between you and God; and “bein adam lechavero” between you and your fellow human beings.


A way I want us to get familiarized with is how the sage Avraham Ibn Ezra, who was alive in the 11th century in Spain, divides the mitzvot in three groups:

Of the heart, of the tongue and of doing. And then he subdivides these in positive and negative.


Now some are pretty easy, such as murdering and stealing – or at least we imagine so. The most challenging is coveting. Why is it the most challenging? Because we usually do not think that emotions can be regulated. And how does Ibn Ezra understand this specific, thorny commandment?


In the first section regarding the heart, his positive ones include “love God”, the veahavtah et Adnai elohecha” as well as to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. The negative ones cover such commandments as ‘don’t hate your brother in your heart’ or ‘don’t bear a grudge’.


In the second category regarding words of the tongue, he includes the commandment to say the Shema twice a day and Grace After Meal (‘Benching’) and an example of negative is the not bearing a false witness or cursing using God’s name.


The third category are actions.


So going back to the Aseret Hadibrot, he points out that the first two are of the heart, because if you’d think that not bowing down to idols was an “action”, you’d be wrong – it is an expression of the heart, he says, since it is about loving God. The third commandment is about the tongue, as even if you love God you could use God’s name in vain. Shabbat is about actions, as is honoring parents. Those would be in the first tablet. On the second tablet, he says, what you have is the another set of actions – murder, adultery, stealing followed by not swearing falsely in court, which is obviously a question of how you use your tongue. Which leaves, of course, coveting for the heart. And it looks like a neat sandwich, for sure, but is not exactly helpful.


And of course Ibn Ezra has a response. He says yes, it is a heart business, but not like what you’d think. He brings a parable to explain, and in the parable there is a peasant that sees the daughter of the king. Even though she is beautiful, and the peasant knows that, the peasant will not covet her since it is as possible for him to sleep with her as it is for him to suddenly sprout wings in his back. So for him – and for many other rabbis – coveting is not simply feeling the desire, but trying to actively get what you desire. That is illustrated with two fairly famous stories.


The first one is of none other than King David, who sees Batsheva bathing on the roof, has an affair with her while her husband Uriah is fighting the war with the Philistines, and when she reveals to David that she’s pregnant, David proceeds to kill Uriah. The second story comes from another king, Achab. Achab wants a vineyard that belongs to Navot, and Navot or Naboth, does not want to give it to him. So he does what all great kings do, and pouts, and whines and refuses to eat. Jezebel, his wife, does what all great queens do, and tells him to kill Navot and just stop whining already.


And that, for the rabbis, is the most important thing – it is not about wanting the woman or the vineyard, it is not about fantasizing. It is about using your smarts or your power to get what you fantasize about, even though they are not supposed to be yours in the first place. Ibn Ezra wants you to know an important maxim of the Jewish tradition, which is – certain things are given to you as part of your existence. What possessions will you have, how long your life is and how many children you have are all decided beforehand. So coveting something or someone is really about being ungrateful, and not seeing the blessings you already have in your life.


By seeing “do not covet” as a heart commandment, and by defining coveting as actively trying to get what you cannot have, Ibn Ezra is really trying to tell that coveting means making the plans. The heart is not necessarily the seat of emotions alone, but of all thought. In that sense, controlling coveting really means controlling the thoughts of planning – and not the emotion of desire. It is about controlling the tendencies of being ungrateful – and that even modern psychology says is possible.


So may this week be a week of seeing that our grass is greener than the neighbor’s simply because it is our grass. And may we find the grace of being thankful for the many blessings in our lives, for our internal and external beauties and for our many gifts.


Shabbat Shalom