Parshat Yitro: ‘Someone brought me here’

Man exists. This is fact. But man is a creature who asks questions, and sometimes those bother him and make him restless.

WORSHIPERS PRAY at the Western Wall in the capital during Hanukka last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WORSHIPERS PRAY at the Western Wall in the capital during Hanukka last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s Torah portion is the central parsha of the entire Torah because it contains Ma’amad Har Sinai, the revelation at Mount Sinai. This historic event is the most significant in our nation’s narrative because it was when the Torah was given to Am Yisrael.
At this event, the entire nation experienced a rare and singular revelation and took upon itself to obey the commandments of G-d when it said “Na’aseh ve’nishma,” “We will do and we will hear.”
At the event itself, the nation heard the Ten Commandments – the 10 mitzvot that were told to the nation and afterward etched on the Luchot Habrit, the Tablets of the Covenant, those same tablets that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Mount Sinai after being there for 40 days.
The Ten Commandments were etched onto two tablets, five commandments on each. When we read the commandments, we notice a clear division between those on the first tablet and those on the second. The first contains commandments that are “ben adam laMakom,” between man and G-d, and the second contains commandments that deal with social relationships and are termed “ben adam lechavero,” between man and man.
Let us quickly scan the Ten Commandments and examine if in fact this division between man and G-d versus between man and man fits with the commandments’ division between the two tablets.
The first tablet includes the following commandments: belief in G-d; prohibition of worship of other gods; prohibition of swearing in vain in the name of G-d; keeping Shabbat; respecting one’s father and mother.
The second tablet includes the following commandments: prohibition of murder; prohibition of committing adultery; prohibition of theft; prohibition of bearing false witness; prohibition of coveting something owned by another.
It is easy to discern that the second tablet deals completely with mitzvot that are “ben adam lechavero.” Murder, theft, adultery, giving false witness, and greediness are all deeds which every person would agree can destroy society and basic human morality.
On the other hand, the first tablet deals clearly and almost entirely with commandments between man and G-d. Belief in G-d, idol worship, using G-d’s name for false oaths, and keeping Shabbat – all these deal directly with the relationship between man and G-d. But then it seems that one commandment from the second tablet got “mixed in” with the first one. The commandment to honor one’s parents seems to be socially significant in that it speaks to regulating relationships within the family unit. Why, then, was this commandment etched onto the first tablet? One of the greatest commentators, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, of the great Spanish sages, 13th century), answered this question with a few short words, and we will try to examine them further.
Here is what he said: “Because G-d [He] is our first Father, and the procreator [the father or the mother, is] our last father.” (Ramban, Shmot 20:12) These words hold deep meaning. It might be said that in these few words, the Ramban played on the most delicate and sensitive of religion’s heartstrings. If we were to ask a man with faith, “Why do you believe?” we would usually receive an answer trying to prove the existence of G-d in one way or another. But the truth is that the deepest foundation upon which faith is based does not depend on external evidence of any kind. The basis for faith exists in the heart of every person, and when he focuses on this internal and profound point, he can define himself as a man of faith.
Man exists. This is fact. But man is a creature who asks questions, and sometimes those bother him and make him restless. Thousands of years ago already, the great philosopher Socrates walked around the streets of Athens and asked the passersby, “How should one live?” He asked because these questions bothered him and they should bother anyone who gives even a little thought to his life and his existence. The most bothersome question is “Why am I here?” or “For what purpose am I here?” The answers to these will also answer the question “How should I live?” For a considerable portion of our lives, we circle around this question without explicitly asking it, though what we are actually doing is searching for the answer.
If we really examine the question “Why am I here,” and refuse to accept the premise that our existence is random and insignificant, we will reach the following conclusion: “Someone brought me here.” This conclusion makes a man believe. And here we return to honoring our father and mother. That same respect for whoever “brought us here” exists also for G-d Who created the entire world, and for parents who created us and brought us into the world. A person who experiences faith will be careful to honor his parents since he acquires the respect and appreciation for the source that created him and from which he came.
The commandment to honor one’s father and mother is not merely a social commandment “ben adam lechavero,” but is a commandment of deep significance to faith. This is the reason we find it etched on the first tablet which deals with mitzvot between man and G-d, “ben adam laMakom.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.