The Correct Response – Parashat Yitro

February 1, 2018 at 2:18 AM , , ,

“….G-d spoke all these words, to say….” – Shemot 20:1

וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר – שמות כ, א

The Midrash (Mechilta) explains that the word לאמר, to say, in the verse that introduces the sounding of the Ten Commandments, is not an instruction to those being addressed to repeat what they are being told to others, as לאמר is generally used. Rather, לאמר in this instance means to respond, meaning that Bnei Yisrael responded to G-d after each of the Ten Commandments. The subject of their response, however, is a matter of debate. According to R’ Akiva, they responded “Yes!” to the positive commands as well as to the prohibitions, indicating their willingness to comply with whatever G-d demanded. R’ Yishmael disagrees and says that they would respond “Yes!” to the positive mitzvos, indication their willingness to fulfill that commandment, and “No!” to the prohibitions, indicating that they would refrain from whatever G-d says is forbidden.

This debate is, in essence, a commentary on the nature of mitzvos, and what our primary focus in their fulfillment must be. Should our emphasis in the observance of a mitzvah be on experiencing its unique message and particular effect on our lives and on the world, or on the common theme shared by all the mitzvos – simply, that their observance fulfills the will of G-d?

10 commandment

R’ Yishmael is of the opinion that the refinement of the individual (and the world) that each mitzvah impacts is the ultimate purpose of mitzvah’s observance. He therefore asserts the Jewish people sensed the unique purpose and effect of each of the Ten Commandments. In line with their experience, their responses alternated between “Yes!” – expressing their excitement to implement the positive mitzvos in their lives, and “No!” – voicing their aversion to the negative effects caused by transgression of the prohibitions.

Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, maintains that the highest form of worship is the transcendence from the physical reality that can be experienced though mitzvos. This is found equally in restraining from transgression as it is in fulfilling the positive commands—they are all opportunities to surrender our selves to G-d and His will. R’ Akiva therefore asserts that the Jewish people at Sinai experienced this transcendent nature of mitzvos and appropriately responded a uniform and affirmative “Yes!” to all Ten Commandments.

—Likkutei Sichos vol. 6, pp. 124-125


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