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Angela W. Buchdahl
Rules Are Jewish Love (Parashat Yitro)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  May 11, 2012

How often have your parents responded to a challenge of their rules or orders by saying “Because I SAID SO”?

It can be an infuriating response because it gives you no room for argument, no means for reconsideration.  But generally speaking, you comply, perhaps because you have no choice, but maybe also because deep down you have faith that your parents have your well-being and best interests at heart.

Sometimes parental orders are easy to understand: “Eat your green beans and drink your milk,” (so you can be strong and healthy).  But others can feel arbitrary and nonsensical: “Say ptooey, ptooey when someone says something nice about you.” In these cases, sometimes even parents don’t always have a way to articulate why this action is important, but they have a strong sense that these rules will keep you safe and help you to be the best person you can be.  This is Jewish love.

Love, ahavah, is discussed in two prayers which surround the Sh’ma.  The prayer before is called Ahavah Rabbah and the V’ahavta comes after.  The Ahavah Rabbah says that God had such a great love for us that He gave us Torah, our “rule book” for how we are to walk in this world.  The V’ahavta in turn talks of how we show love to God, by following these rules and teaching them to our children, in our home and on our way.  This liturgy makes clear that love is shown through actions, not just words, and that God loved us enough to teach us how to be.

Ten of the most important rules, known as the Ten Commandments, are presented in the Torah portion called Jethro.  Some of these rules are self-evident, such as “do not murder” and “do not steal,” (so that society does not devolve into chaos).  But others are harder to decipher, such as “You shall not make a graven image of me.”

What did our ancestors say in response to all of God’s Torah rules? “Na’aseh v’nishmah—All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8)  While they did not know all that was in the Torah, and they did not understand at times why they were being asked to follow some of these rules, they were willing to take it on faith that God had the Jewish people’s best interests at heart.

As teenagers, there is often little choice but to follow parental rules, even the ones you don’t fully understand.  But often, with the perspective of time, maybe only when you become parents yourselves, you appreciate the wisdom and the love of the boundaries your parents imposed on your life: the curfews that kept you safe at night or the consequences for breaking a trust, which taught you a life lesson.

So too, the Israelites accepted the mitzvoth and followed them, often only later understanding their meaning: how keeping the Sabbath has preserved our identity through a life of exile for two-thousand years; how a mandate to leave the corners of our fields for the poor has made our people understand how to care for the most vulnerable in our communities.

We know that these rules were given in love.  Parashat Jethro teaches that Na’aseh v’nishmah means, “We will do and then we will understand.”


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