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Yisro: Taking the Torah’s Commandments to Heart

אנכי ה' אלקיך.

“I am Hashem your G-d.”

The Midrash says: “When Hashem said, ‘I am Hashem your G-d,’ Moshe immediately said, ‘Baruch shelo asani goy - Blessed is He that He didn’t make me [belong to another] nation.’”

Why did Moshe exclaim these words? What was he trying to say, and why did he feel that this blessing pertains to him especially, more than to all other Jews?

The Sefer Bris Avrom gives a beautiful explanation of this Midrash. The commentators ask why Hashem spoke in the singular when He said: “I am Hashem your G-d.” He was addressing the entire Jewish people at once, yet He spoke in singular form. One of the answers that are suggested is that Hashem spoke this way so that Moshe should be able to defend the Jewish people after they sinned with the golden calf by arguing that Hashem spoke only to him [to Moshe] and not to everyone else. The Bris Avrom takes this a step further and explains: “After the affair with the Golden Calf, Hashem was greatly angered and wanted to destroy the Jewish people. Moshe argued in their defense that Hashem promised the Forefathers to make their offspring into a great nation. Hashem replied: ‘I will make you into a great nation,’ meaning that He will destroy the Jewish people and build a new nation from Moshe’s offspring.

“When Moshe heard Hashem say the first commandment in singular form, he realized that he will now be able to defend the Jewish people if they disobey this commandment, by arguing that it was addressed to him alone. This is why Moshe declared: ‘Baruch shelo asani goy - Blessed is He that He didn’t make me [into a new] nation.’ Because Hashem used the singular form when saying this commandment, Moshe could avoid becoming the goy gadol – the great nation – that Hashem told him he would become.”

We are left with a question: Moshe was the most humble person who ever lived. How could he imply that Hashem meant him alone when giving the Torah? In fact, in some of the previous verses the wording may be construed as meaning that Hashem gave the Torah only to Moshe. For example, Hashem said to Moshe (Shemos 19:9): “So that the nation should hear what I speak to you.” Hashem didn’t say “so that the nation should hear what I speak to them.” Why did Hashem phrase His words in a way that can be understood as if He spoke only to Moshe?

There is another question that arises. The Gemara says that Hashem told Moshe that the Jewish people should prepare themselves for three days to receive the Torah, which will be given to them on the third day. However, Moshe added another day of his own accord (Shabbos 87a). Why did Moshe, in his great humility, add to Hashem’s commandment and postpone Matan Torah by a full day?

We can understand this as follows: Before receiving the Torah the Jewish people prepared themselves thoroughly, and constantly grew in their avodas Hashem. They were simply unrecognizable from one day to the next, because of the daily personal growth they underwent. When Moshe, the humblest person who ever lived, saw how great the Jewish people became, he thought to himself: Everyone seems to be ready for Kabbolas haTorah, but I am completely unprepared! This is why he added another day.

During Matan Torah, when Hashem declared “I am Hashem your G-d,” the Jewish people thought, ‘Why would Hashem command us such a basic principle of faith? Do we need to be told such things? Must we be commanded not to bow down to other gods?’ This is why the Torah tells us (Shemos 20:15): “And the nation saw and they became frightened and stood from afar.” The Jewish people became frightened when they heard Hashem tell them not to have other gods, not to murder or steal, and so forth. They “stood from afar” – meaning, they considered themselves to be far away from needing these commandments. They turned to Moshe and said: “You shall speak to us and we will hear, and we shall not be spoken to by Hashem for we may perish.” They meant to say that Moshe is aware of their high spiritual level, while Hashem is speaking to them about commandments that are way beneath them.

But Moshe, on the other hand, was so humble that he listened to every word and accepted it upon himself fully. He felt that his many accomplishments still left much to be desired, and there is always room for improvement.

The Bnei Yissoschar writes that when the Torah commands us: “You shall not have any foreign gods,” this does not only mean that we should not worship idols. There are many things that are compared to idol worship, such as when a person serves Hashem with ulterior motives or in order to be honored by others. Likewise, when the Torah commands us not to murder, this means more than not killing another person. The Gemara says (Bava Metzia 58b): “Whoever [shames] his friend publicly is as if he spilled blood.”

When Moshe heard Hashem’s commandments, he took them much further and understood that if someone is on a high enough level that the simple meaning of the commandments does not apply to him, there are still things he must take to heart and be careful with in order not to transgress these directives.

So although “the nation stood from afar,” thinking that these words are far removed from them, “Moshe approached the fog where Hashem was.” Moshe did come close, because he understood that despite his loftiness there is always room for growth and improvement.

When Hashem said: “You shall not have any foreign gods,” Moshe understood that Hashem was speaking directly to him, because all other Jews are certainly way above this commandment. This is why Moshe felt that the commandment was meant for him alone, and therefore he was able to defend the Jewish people with this argument.

Let us take this a bit further. Why did Moshe postpone Matan Torah by one day? Did he feel ready a day later? He probably still felt unworthy of receiving the Torah. But our sages say that “all opinions agree that the Torah was given on Shabbos” (Shabbos 86b). Moshe felt that the holiness of Shabbos will raise him to the level of being ready to accept the torah. Therefore, Moshe pushed off Matan Torah for Shabbos so that he should merit receiving the Torah properly.

The Jewish people achieved a very high level prior to Kabbolas Hatorah. The Torah says that “the Jewish people rested there facing the mountain.” Rashi explains: “Like one man with one heart.” They completely overcame the yetzer hara in their hearts and were on a very high spiritual level.

However, Rashi continues: “But at all other places they rested with ill-will and strife.” Why indeed is this such a problematic issue for our nation? We should always remember that we are all brothers; why is the yetzer hara of machlokes (strife) so strong and so frequently successful in causing strife among our people?

Hashem created us with all types of emotions, including the emotion of anger. All emotions should be used for a good purpose, including anger and contention, as the Gemara says (Berachos 5a): “A person should always fight with his yetzer tov against his yetzer hara.” The yetzer hara tries to divert our focus from himself and deflects our anger on others. He persuades us to fight each other, instead of fighting him. This can be compared to a burglar who sees the homeowner coming towards him with a rifle. The burglar grabs one of the children and holds him as a shield, so that if the owner shoots, the child will be shot ch”v. Likewise, when the yetzer hara sees us harnessing the power of anger against him, he takes another Jew and places him in the way, so that we should use our anger against our own brother. This is how we find ourselves embroiled in machlokes with each other.

However, at Matan Torah the yetzer hara was destroyed from the Jewish people’s hearts. Without a yetzer hara against who to fight, the power of anger was no longer needed and the Jews were able to achieve a complete sense of unity. When Moshiach will come the yetzer hara will finally be destroyed forever, and we will no longer need any anger. We will then achieve the ultimate achdus, complete unity with each other, and live in peace and harmony.

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