Parshas Yisro (5776)
Rabbi Yitzchak Eizek Sher ZT”L from Slabodka, in his classic work Leket Sichos Mussar, points out an amazing thing in this week’s Torah portion: The Jewish people had just left Egypt after having witnessed many open miracles, and were now marching to Mount Sinai to receive G-d’s Torah. One can only imagine the incredibly high spiritual level they must have attained to be able to hear G-d’s voice as He uttered the Ten Commandments.
Yet what do they hear at Sinai? “You shall not murder”; “You shall not commit adultery”. How insulted the Jewish people must have been that G-d was commanding them not to murder their fellow human being! After all, they had all attained a level of prophecy which most human beings never attain. Surely they would never consider murder or adultery!
Of course the answer is that the prohibition of murder does not only include actual murder. Rabbi Saadia Gaon and many others write that all 613 mitzvos are alluded to in the Ten Commandments, and that these commandments are really just subgroups which include other similar mitzvos. In fact, the text of the Ten Commandments contains 620 letters (see Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16) corresponding to the 613 mitzvos plus the 7 Rabbinic precepts (or the 7 Noachide laws).
So that when G-d commanded the Jewish people at Sinai not to murder each other, there are many other acts that fall into that category that G-d had in mind as well – some of which are only considered murder for those who are on a very high spiritual level and from whom G-d expects more. For this reason, the Jewish people were not insulted in the slightest by these commandments.
Rabbi Sher explains that the Torah itself illustrates this point through the two commandments that G-d gives the Jewish people immediately following the Revelation (see Exodus 20:22-23).
First we are commanded not to use iron tools when cutting stones to make the Altar in the Temple in Jerusalem This is because iron, as the raw material of the sword, shortens life, while the Altar, by offering people the opportunity of repentance and atonement, lengthens it.
Furthermore, when building the Altar, we are commanded not to construct steps to reach the top of it, but to make a ramp. The reason for this is that if the Priests were to mount the Altar on steps, the raising of their legs as they walked up would seem to expose their private parts to those steps, and the Torah frowns upon even the slightest suggestion of immodesty.
With these two commandments we are being taught that G-d expects a lot from us and that even though most of us would never consider actual murder or adultery, we need to be careful not to engage in other activities which might be considered a form of murder or adultery.
Using iron when cutting stones for the Altar calls to mind the sword and shows a lack of sensitivity to the preciousness of human life and is a murder of sorts. And mounting the Altar on steps reflects a certain level of immorality, and can also be a form of adultery for those from whom G-d expects more.
I would like to share with you some other examples of this concept, and you will see just how far it goes. Take the commandment not to murder, for instance.
~ The Talmud in Bava Metzia 58b says that whoever publicly embarrasses his fellow man is considered as if he had shed blood, because shame causes a person’s blood to drain from his face.
~ The Talmud in Yevamos 63b teaches that one who chooses not to get married and have children is considered as if he spills blood.
~ A host is responsible for a traveler who leaves his home; he must provide him with sufficient provisions and a proper escort, lest the traveler fall prey to hunger or attack. The host who fails to meet his obligations is described in the Torah as a shedder of blood (Deuteronomy 21:17; Sotah 45b-46b).
~ In Yevamos 78b we are taught one Jew who causes another to lose his livelihood is considered as having murdered him.
~ The Talmud in Sotah 22b expounds upon Proverbs 7:26, introducing yet another dimension in the Jewish concept of murder: “…for she has cast down many corpses” refers to the immature and unprepared student who has not attained the proper level of wisdom, yet dares to issue Halachic (Jewish law) decisions; “and the number of her slain victims is enormous” refers to the mature scholar who is qualified to make decisions and teach Torah, but refrains from doing so. Both of them commit crimes of ‘murder’ against the Jewish people – one actively, the other passively.
All these crimes and more are included under the concept of You shall not murder, although, of course, only actual murder incurs the death penalty according to Jewish law.
[Sources: Tehillim (Psalms) with commentary by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, Artscroll Mesorah Publishing]