Devarim Ten: Circumcise the Foreskin of Your Heart

Moses continues his recap of the giving of the Ten Commandments. He recalls how God instructed him to recreate the first set of tablets exactly when he made the second set. “And He inscribed on the tablets, like the first writing, the Ten Commandments, which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, on the day of the assembly, and the Lord gave them to me (Deuteronomy 10:4).” It’s interesting to me that this doesn’t acknowledge the differences that we just saw in the second set of commandments, such as the whole issue with the commandment to both remember and keep Shabbat. Was it written the same but conveyed differently? Or was the intention the same each time, but manifested differently?

The people moved to Moserah where Aaron died, and to Yotvath, where the Levites were given their separate mission to serve God. “Therefore, Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord, your God spoke to him (Deuteronomy 10:9).” Moses repeatedly intervened with God on behalf of the people, protecting them from His wrath and moving them towards their ultimate goal of entering the land. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul (Deuteronomy 10:12).” What does it mean to walk in God’s ways? Does it mean to follow His laws? Or to behave in a godly manner, something akin to being made in God’s image?

Now, we have a particularly lovely sentence. “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff necked (Deuteronomy 10:16).” What a visual! I’m taking this verse to mean that just as the circumcision is a way of dedicating oneself to God physically through the covenant, ones heart must also be dedicated to God.

Devarim Five: Shamor v’Zakhor

Moses continues his prelude to the laws and statutes that the people will need to follow. He reminds the people how special their position in history is. “Not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today. Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire: and I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire, and you did not go up on the mountain, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Deuteronomy 5:3-6).'” Then, he recaps the giving of the Ten Commandments, with a few differences from the first version. One famous example of this is the commandment regarding Shabbat. “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God commanded you (Deuteronomy 5:12).” This differs from the original iteration of these words. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the Shabbat commandment is to remember the day in order to sanctify it. Much has been written and explored about this difference. Why both? Why was one not enough? Was one more important? Which is accurate?

In the classic Shabbat evening song, Lecha Dodi, the first verse says, Keep and Remember were uttered as one. Somehow, in one moment, we were given a dual commandment, to both keep and remember Shabbat. Both the action and the intention are necessary in order to fully fulfill the commandment and do the appropriate honor to Shabbat. By having two versions of the Ten Commandments in Tanakh, we see the multiple layers of their messaging, something that God could convey in one breath, but that we need to completely understand their meaning.

Shemot Thirty-Four: Yom HaShoah and the Sins of the Father

Moses has broken the original stone tablets containing the 10 commandments in a fit of rage after the sin of the Golden Calf. Now, he has gone up Mount Sinai once again. “And he hewed to tablets of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone (Exodus 34:4).” Although God was angry at the people, He has not fully withdrawn from them, and He shows this by once again providing them His word.

God’s presence comes to Moses on the mountain. “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The Lord, Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation; forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).'”

It is striking to me that we read these words today. When Project 929 began, I wasn’t sure how I would find meaning in the chapters that would fall out on key days in the Jewish year. Today is erev Yom HaShoah, the night before Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jewish holidays begin in the evening, and as I write this, it’s almost time for the ceremonies that mark this day of remembrance and mourning. And we read these words of Torah, that God is merciful and good, yet remembers the sins of the fathers for generations. What does this mean? Are the children of the perpetrators of the greatest atrocity in human history posthumously responsible for the sins of their fathers? And what about beyond sinning – today, more than any other day in the calendar, begs the question what is our responsibility to the past? Those of us who are born of the third generation after the Holocaust, whose connection is indirect, how do we remember? What do we remember? We did not personally bare witness, and yet we are the living connection to the Jewish past, and the Jewish future. What is our role?

Shemot Thirty-Two: The Golden Calf

This whole time, Moses has been on top of Mount Sinai hearing God’s instructions. Clearly, it’s been a while, and the people down at the base of the mountain are beginning to worry about him. “When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: ‘Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him (Exodus 32:1).'” On the one hand, the people come off as fickle – they admit that Moses was the one who brought them out of Egypt, but they’re easily ready to do away with him. However, it’s also understandable on some level. They feel as though they’ve been abandoned by their leader, and are trying to compensate in the only way that they know how – by finding something new to rely on.

Aaron is a little harder to understand. Without protest, he goes along with the order of the people, and begins to construct the golden calf. We have heard that the people gathered against him, but what does that mean? Did they threaten him? Force him to participate? Or did he do it of his own free will? If so, did he agree with them that Moses wasn’t coming back? Or was he trying to save himself? We don’t get any insight into his motivations, so we can only speculate.

Once the calf has been constructed, the people begin to make sacrifices and party. God tells Moses to go back down the mountain, because the people are behaving in a corrupt manner. “They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:8).'” God is angry at the people for turning towards other gods in the form of the calf. Moses tries to act as the intermediary on behalf of the people, just as Abraham did for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He said, “Why should the Egyptians say: ‘He brought them out with evil to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth’? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil for Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever (Exodus 32:12-13).'” God listens to Moses, and reconsiders. However, Moses comes down the mountain, carrying the 10 commandments, and tells Joshua, who has been waiting for him, that there is a noise of blasphemy in the camp.

“Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses’ anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19).” Moses destroys the calf, and asks his brother Aaron what happened that caused him to sin in such a way. “Aaron replied: ‘Let not my lord’s anger grow hot! You know the people, that they are disposed towards evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him (Exodus 32:22-23).'” Aaron blames the people for being evil as the reason for him building the calf. Moses accepts this explanation, and calls the people who support God to come to him. The tribe of the Levites come to him, and and they kill everyone who participated in the revelry surrounding the calf. Then, Moses returns up to Sinai to ask for atonement for the people. In this exchange, Moses seems like the parent bargaining on behalf of his children. No matter how badly they’ve behaved, he is capable of forgiving them, and doesn’t want them to be punished. His love for the people is unconditional, regardless of whether or not it is warranted.

Shemot Twenty-Four: Going Up The Mountain

God speaks to Moses, and says, “Come up to the Lord, you, and Aaron, Nadav, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and you worship afar off; and Moses alone shall come near to the Lord; but they shall not come near; neither shall the people go up with him (Exodus 24:1-2).” God is setting up a chain of command amongst the Israelites. Moses is clearly at the top, with Aaron and his sons, the priests, second, and the elders from amongst the tribes finishing up the leadership class. The people listen, and agree to follow the words of God.

“And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen unto the Lord (Exodus 24:4-5).” What words is Moses writing down? The laws that the people have been hearing over the last few chapters? The original ten commandments? Or something else?

Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and the elders, go up. “And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink (Exodus 24:10-11).” This seems like such an odd description. There is the description of physical elements of God, including feet and hands, which we are told don’t actually exist, as God has no corporeal form. What is the purpose of the sapphire stone? What does it mean that the elders ‘beheld God?’ Did they see God’s presence? And why would the followup to this be eating and drinking?

God tells Moses that He will give him stone tablets containing the commandments so that Moses can teach them to the people. So Moses goes up the mountain with Joshua, leaving the elders behind. “And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mountain; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:16-18).”

Shemot Twenty-One: An Eye for an Eye

Having received the ten commandments, the people are now given more rules that they must follow. The chapter begins with regulations about personal slaves. I find it interesting that this is being discussed so soon after the people leave slavery in Egypt. Weren’t we supposed to learn from that experience that slavery is bad? Instead, we see that slavery was an enduring part of Israelite culture. However, unlike the Egyptians, the Israelite slave owners had regulations to ensure that they treated their slaves in a humane manner.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing (Exodus 21:2).” Here, we learn that slavery isn’t a permanent state. Unlike in Egypt, where the people served for generations, an Israelite can’t keep a slave for his or her whole life. They have a limited term of service, and cannot be kept in eternal bondage. However, if the slave doesn’t wish to leave his master, he can then be kept forever. A society in which even slaves have rights strikes me as remarkably progressive for the time in which this was written. It shows that even though they were subject to the will of their masters, they were still seen as human beings. While today, this would be scandalous and a clear human rights violation, it was definitely revolutionary for the ancient Near East.

In addition to slave law, we learn about punishments for many transgressions. “And he that smites his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. And he that steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he that curses his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:15-17).” What strikes me as interesting about this section is that killing ones parent and cursing them carries the same weight and punishment. While obviously neither are acceptable, are they really equivalent? Many commentators say that cursing in this case is threatening, or wishing evil upon someone. While maybe this isn’t always a death sentence, being this disrespectful to a parent is apparently an unforgivable sin.

Later on in the chapter, we are given some of the most famous words of Tanakh. “But if any harm follows, they you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-25).” This premise of reciprocal punishment is employed by cultures around the world. It stands on the idea that in order for the punishment to fit the crime, one must mirror the other. For example, if a man breaks another man’s hand, his hand must be broken in return. This concept still exists today in much of the Middle East, and sometimes manifests extremely violently. Is this the way to handle things? Or are other biblical concepts, such as turn the other cheek, the ones that we should follow?

Shemot Twenty: 10 Commandments

Mount Sinai is full of fire and smoke and thunder and lightning, and now, God begins to speak to the people. The words that He chooses to say to them are the ten commandments. I find it interesting that the words that God shares with the people begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It’s as though God is introducing Himself to the people. Is this really necessary? Don’t the people know who God is, and what He did?

So, the ten commandments:

1. I am the Lord your God (etc.)

2. You will have no other gods before Me (this encompasses not making images, or worshipping idols)

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

5. Honor your father and mother

6. You shall not murder

7. You will not commit adultery

8. You will not steal

9. You will not bear false witness against your neighbor

10. You will not covet your neighbors’ house, or his wife, etc.

Of all of the commandments that God eventually gives to the people, why are these ten the first ones, and the ones delivered directly to them? Do they all have equal weight? What does it teach us that these are meant to be the priorities of our relationship with God?

“And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood far away (Exodus 20:15).” Clearly the direct encounter with God was a terrifying experience for the people. It’s understandable that they stood before God in fear and awe, given the circumstances of this revelatory moment. What does it mean for us? There’s a midrash that says the souls of every Jew that would ever be born were present during the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai. Therefore, these words were said directly to us. This experience is one that we had on some level. Our souls have stood before God. How do we perceive this concept, and what it means for us in our lives?

Shemot Fourteen: Israeli Elections and Crossing the Red Sea

The people are finally out of Pharaoh’s grasp (or so they think). While the people are camped near the sea, God tells Moses that once again, He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will come after the Israelites. We are finally given an explanation for (at least this instance) of God’s decision-making regarding Pharaoh. This time, we hear that God wants Pharaoh, and all of the Egyptians, to know that He is the Lord. I personally think they’ve grasped this concept by now, but maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, Pharaoh begins to regret his decision. “And he made ready his chariots, and took his people with him. And he took six hundred chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over all of them. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel; for the children of Israel went out with a high hand (Exodus 14:6-9).” The people are still camped by the sea, and they see Pharaoh coming. Understandably, they’re afraid, and start to panic.

“And they said to Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt (Exodus 14:11)?'” The people, who have just experienced the wonders of God, and have finally been released, immediately want to backtrack in the face of their first adversary. It’s understandable that they’re scared, but their lack of faith at this point is hard to see. Moses promises that people that God will fight for them, and God commands Moses to lead the people into the sea. “And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel will go into the midst of the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:16).”

God’s presence in the form of the pillar of cloud goes in between the Egyptians and the Israelites to provide an additional layer of protection. Then, Moses stretches his hand over the sea, and God caused the sea to part. “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left (Exodus 14:22).”

The Egyptians chase the Israelites into the sea, and we all know what happens: the wheels of their chariots get stuck, and once the Israelites make it through, the sea closes on the Egyptians, killing them all. God saves the people, and as a result of this latest triumph, the people fear and respect God.

It’s interesting for me to be reading this chapter today, the day following a controversial Israeli election. At this point in Tanakh, the Jewish people are at the beginning of a journey that we live out every day. This is literally their first day of freedom, and of self-determination. They are taking their first steps towards the Promised Land, with nothing ahead of them but a dream. All of the wandering that they will endure, all of the suffering and learning, growth and rebellion, that they will experience, is because of this dream: self determination in the land of Israel. Yesterday, I was blessed and honored to join my fellow Israelis in exercising our right to vote as citizens of an independent, sovereign Jewish state. The Israelites leaving Egypt could only dream of the homeland that awaited them somewhere beyond the sea. Likewise, generations of Jews longed for a mythical Israel that they felt connected to in spite of never having seen it themselves. Today, we Israelis live the dream of all of those who couldn’t be here. The journey to freedom that began at the sea is our foundation, and yesterday the Jewish and democratic State of Israel reemphasized the miracle that is our existence.