Parsha Yitro speaks to four of Judaism’s main pillars: the belief in one God, the primacy of God’s the Law [a term which encompasses morality and ethics], the Sabbath and, the worship of God. The focus of the Parsha is naturally on [what is colloquially called] the Ten Commandments which are often thought of as the Basic Law of the Torah and which impart the theological base for the entire corpus of Jewish law and beliefs.
The first three Commandments, which can easily be combined into one all encompassing principle of monotheism, address matters of faith. They begin with a very simple statement: “I the Lord Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”. This sole sentence represents a marked departure from God’s previous self-attributed provenance as the God of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. God was no longer a being from a distant and nostalgic past; He was the God of the present.
They continued: “you shall have no other gods before Me; You shall not make idols and, You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” These axioms served as the foundation for Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were developed mainly to assist the Jews of his time in the ongoing, often hostile, debates instituted by various Christian communities of Europe. Loosely, he articulated a creed for Judaism, which established that for Jews the Lord, the God of Israel, is the creator of all that is and all which will ever be. He is unique; there is no other like him. God has no body; it is therefore not only impermissible but also impossible to make a physical representation of God. Finally, the God of the Torah is omnipresent, omnipotent and is omniscient. Likely, it was only the opening phrase which had any meaning to the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. However, the twinned notions of God as the Creator and the Redeemer are now ubiquitous in the Jewish liturgy that has been developed since the demise of the Sacrificial Rite.
The fifth to tenth Commandments speak to the types of laws which are necessary to maintain the social fabric but are, unlike the articles of faith, exclusive to Israel. Prohibitions against violence, the taking of another’s property, and the perversion of justice, have all been well recognized as cancers that erode societies. Similarly, envy and adultery gnaw at the glue that unites people behind a common cause..
What is unique to the Torah is the creation of a mandatory day of rest, the Sabbath. The notion that on one day of each week all people were enjoined from working is in some respects the greatest gift of the Torah. Ahad Ha’am, an early proponent of cultural Zionism observed: “one can say without exaggeration that more than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jew”.
The Ten Commandments do not speak to worship; rather, they speak to deeds. Worship is a human desire and fulfils a human need to create a presence for God. The Torah suggests a very simple form of devotion, reflecting perhaps what God needed and not necessarily what the Israelites wanted. The Parsha ends on a short note with God directing that the Israelites to make the barest of our platforms for their burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. The symbolism suggested by an altar made of earth or simple stone picked off the ground is a strong indicator of God’s disdain for elaborate temples and rituals. This notion was completely upset by the Israelites great betrayal, the worship of the Golden Calf, which indicated to God that the Israelites were not quite ready to meet the challenges that He represented and that He presented.