The Power to Serve

Yitro By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 29, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

Judaism is an elaborate way of relating to God as the source of existence and the provider of ultimate meaning. Nothing could be more fatuous than the all too common notion that observance is possible without faith; that one might meticulously heed the minutiae of Jewish practice without any belief in a supreme being. Hence, the Ten Commandments begin with an affirmation of God’s reality. “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

For Nachmanides, the great thirteenth century exegete, this is the first of the commandments, the sacred soil in which the others are planted. It is history as theological preamble. Israel had witnessed an unalloyed manifestation of God’s love so overwhelming that, according to the Midrash, any lowly maidservant at the Sea of Reeds saw more of God than the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel ever did. To avow this fundamental principle of faith (i.e., the first commandment) is to submit to the governance of God. Acceptance of God’s kingdom (malkhut shamayim) precedes submission to the restraint of God’s commandments (ol mitzvot).

Divine sovereignty is precisely what Pharaoh had mocked at the outset of his titanic power struggle with Moses: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). The first of the Ten Commandments takes us right back to Egypt and the basic political issue at the heart of the conflict. It is not a matter of oversized egos in battle, but the limits of human authority.

The first commandment ends with the resonant phrase, “from the house of bondage (mi-beit avadim).” Both Rashi and Nachmanides stress: in Egypt, the Israelites were slaves (avadim) to Pharaoh; now they are the servants (avadim) of God, as the Torah says later: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord their God” (Leviticus 25:55). God’s intervention is a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s claim of absolute authority over human life. No man has the right to enslave another. The Exodus from Egypt is a revolutionary act of universal import. All human power is derivative and, therefore, restricted. God alone is the seat of absolute sovereignty. What has occurred in “the house of bondage” is a monstrous abuse of power.

The issue is sharpened in the Torah by the use of the same Hebrew word avod for subservience both to Pharaoh and to God, but with a decisive change in meaning. When Pharaoh first heard the modest request of Moses for a respite (to take Israel into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to God), he intensified the severity of their working conditions: “You are shirkers, shirkers! That is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Be off now to your work (ivdu — an imperative form of our verb). No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks” (Exodus 5:17-18)!

Not without design, Moses employs the same verb in his oft-repeated demand of Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may worship Me (va-yaavduni)” (Exodus 7:16, 26, 18:16, 9:13, 10:4). To serve Pharaoh without rest or remuneration is slavery, the most abysmal form of human degradation. To serve God is to enhance human dignity.

Similarly, it is not accidental that the first topic taken up after Sinai in Parashat Mishpatim deals with the institution of slavery, rendering it of limited duration and vastly more humane (Exodus 21:1-12). The experience of bondage in Egypt, a system of human exploitation without bounds, prepared Israel to offer the world a conception of human authority drastically restricted.

For the Torah, absolute power is the prerogative of God alone, before Whom all human beings are equal. Theocracy blunts the arrogance of human power. The only form of kingship tolerated is that of a constitutional monarch, who is to be a lifelong student of God’s law, and to rule without the trappings of power such as great wealth, many wives and a plethora of horses. Nor was he above criticism. The prophets dared repeatedly to excoriate his acts of excess and injustice. The kind of supreme and sacred power personified by Pharaoh was anathema to the Torah.

Suspicious of every instance of concentrated power in human hands, the Torah slightly deprecates the portrait of Moses. In our parashah, he falls far short of being a consummate administrator. Just prior to meeting God face-to-face atop Mount Sinai, we find Moses taking advice, like any other mortal, from his Midianite father-in-law on how best to administer justice to his people — a deftly ironic juxtaposition of scenes. No matter how close to God, Moses is not without blemish. A minor and enigmatic sin denies him the ultimate fruit of his labor, leading Israel into the Promised Land, and his place of burial is intentionally concealed to prevent it from ever becoming a popular shrine.

Likewise, the Rabbis eliminate any reference to Moses in the ceremonial retelling of the Exodus at the seder table (in the Haggadah). Nor do they permit the parashah in which he alone ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Torah to bear his name, although it easily could have, since his name is the sixth word of the parashah.

Solzhenitsyn writes somewhere that, “It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the 20th century to experience villainy on a scale of millions.” Indeed, the numberless victims of totalitarianism and genocide exceed our capacity to imagine and protest their suffering. The ghost of Pharaoh continues to haunt the earth, donning ever-new garbs. And arrayed against him still is the ancient vision of the Torah which animates the concluding prayer of each and every Jewish service:

We therefore hope in You, O Lord our God, that we may soon behold the glory of Your might, when You will remove the abominations from the earth and when all idolatry will be abolished. We hope for the day when the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty, and all humankind will call upon Your name.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Yitro are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld