Separation and Togetherness

There are times we should separate from our neighbors--and times we should reach out.

Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

This portion amazes me for many reasons. Besides its retelling of the experience at Sinai, an experience we try to reconstruct, to simulate, each time we get together as a community to read Torah, it is amazing that the entire relationship between humanity and the Divine can be reduced at all, especially to a mere ten statements.

Of course, there are 603 other mitzvot (sacred instructions, commandments) contained in the rest of the Torah. And I realize that as humans we need to take large, abstract concepts and make them more concrete, more digestible. We are led to believe that these ten seem to represent the rest. Perhaps they are instead meant to lead us to the rest.

Holiness & Separation

Parashat Yitro is about holiness, separation. Consider these texts from this portion about neighborliness, which are contained in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (Exodus 20:13-14).”

Some even say that observing the last commandment will prevent us from transgressing any others. Because of a desire to be someone else, to have what s/he owns, we are motivated to act inappropriately, to transgress, to sin–to do what would be necessary to get us to that place.

But these texts and the entire portion are not about separating us from our neighbors simply because they are our neighbors. This portion comes to teach us that there are things that we have to distance ourselves from if we want to become a holy nation. We are never told to avoid our neighbors; indeed we are taught that the opportunity is there to open our doors and welcome in all those who wish to join us in our quest to reach heavenward.

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