Yitro

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Anyone who has taken a course in world history has encountered a presentation on the subject of the development of law. Presentations invariably are made on the Code of Hammurabi, the Ode to Aton, authored by Pharaoh Ikhnaton, and finally the Decalogue, the seminal foundation of Jewish doctrine. For all their insights Hammurabi's Code seems filled with a brutality that is repugnant to the thinking person and the Ode to Aton, with all its sensitivity for Monotheism, is an elitist Faith found only in the Pharaoh's home and disappearing from Egypt practically at his death. The Ten Commandments, in stark contrast, are steeped in sensitivity for each human being and have stood the test of time serving as the foundation for the belief of much of humanity as well as constituting the unshakable bedrock upon which much of civilization has been constructed. Our Sages are as well very much taken with the Decalogue.

Saadia Gaon declares that the Ten Commandments contain the general principles of the entire Torah. Substantiating this view others point to the fact that the Decalogue is composed of 620 letters. This number has great import as it represents the 613 Commandments of the Torah as well as the 7 Rabbinic Laws that are incumbent upon the observant Jew. In considering the Decalogue itself, the Sages point to the fact that the first two commandments were heard by each and every Jew at Mount Sinai, the balance being taught to Moses and then through him to the nation. Thus, the Rabbis conclude, the first two commandments have a special place in Jewish law. Further, in considering these two commandments themselves, the Rabbis indicate that the first commandment is even more fundamental than the second. For the second treats the negative - that of turning from G‑d, while the first speaks exclusively of the affirmation of Faith in the One G‑d. And finally, in considering the first commandment itself, we are told that its most significant word is its very first - Anochi - I, the incapsulation of monotheistic belief.

Anochi, from this perspective, represents the most significant word in the entire Pentateuch. Simple, yet profound, it calls humankind to the realization that all is from the One G‑d, and in consequence all has meaning, purpose and connection. The Midrash Tanahuma, however, seemingly defies this otherwise cogent and well ordered presentation. Commenting upon the word Anochi the Midrash states, Anochi lashon mitzri, the word Anochi, I (referring to G‑d), is derived from ancient Egyptian. Given that Hebrew is referred to as lashon kodesh, the Holy language, why was that very word used to describe G‑d, to underscore the Jewish sense of monotheism, of the most Holy, expressed in Egyptian and not in Hebrew?

Moreover our Rabbis observe that of all the seventy major languages of the world, ancient Egyptian, by virtue of its immoral society, was the most debased of languages. For we are taught that the Jewish nation, upon its exodus from Egypt, left behind not only the physical chains of slavery but as well the slavery of living in an immoral society (represented by the 49 gates of impurity). Why would G‑d elect to present Himself to the Jewish People and the world in this fashion, in ancient Egyptian? For years we in the United States took great pride in describing our society as a "melting pot." People from around the globe entered this country only to be "homogenized" into Americans. The two child family, the white picket fence, life in the typical Middle America town, were idealized as representative of the true American life style. Fanciful at best, this false image of America has now been replaced with a more realistic one; one that truly describes the unique society we have created on these shores. The "tossed salad" is now the catch phrase that better describes the America of today. Each of us brings our own unique culture with its varied hues, textures and aromas to the "tossed salad" that is American society. Rich in flavor and contrast, the new America prides itself on its ethnic diversity. Yet we all do live in the same "salad bowl" in which we must collectively establish certain universally held rules of expression and action.

In expressing the unity of G‑d by the use of an Egyptian word, the Torah is teaching us a fundamental view unique to Judaism. Unlike Christianity and Islam each of which views itself as the universal Faith, that Faith that should be embraced by all of humanity, Judaism has always understood the uniqueness of each society and culture and the right to be different. Upholding the principle of the "tossed salad," Judaism has never sought to convert the world. Nevertheless, Judaism has a universal message for humanity - it has a defined "salad bowl" to share with humankind. G‑d must be found in the totality of society. Society must embrace those universal values that ennoble and strengthen the human spirit, that define humankind as significantly more than a complex structure of cells, a mere extension of the amoeba. The task of the Jew in our multi-ethnic America is to revel in its diversity and, at the very same time, serve as the catalyst for universal acceptance of those Jewish values and principles of a moral life that constitute the building blocks for a loving and caring world. The ultimate expression of the Divine Revelation at Sinai is to manifest G‑d's presence in society as a whole. This is truly what is meant by the phrase Tikun Olam - the re-establishing of the world according to the compassionate and understanding Will of G‑d. For when G‑d is truly Anochi, when His principles for human existence are embraced by all Peoples, then and only then, is the Divine Revelation, so majestically brought to bear upon the human condition at Mount Sinai, truly fulfilled. Found in even the most foreign of societies, the golden thread of G‑d's values and principles for human interplay will bind all together as one family - true unity in diversity.