Monday, January 28, 2008


The most important letter
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Just a week ago we read about the revelation at Mount Sinai. We heard voices, saw lightning and spoke about the relationship between man and his God. A week ago we were almost in the heavens. This week we come back to earth.

The portion Mishpatim deals with the relations between man and his fellow-man. This week we hardly speak about God. This week we speak about theft and other criminal offences, about laws for the protection of the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow; about trespassing and damages.

In fact, whoever says that Judaism is a ritualistic religion evidently never read the portion Mishpatim.

"And these are the laws which you shall set before them" (Exodus 21, verse 1). Thus begins the portion. Why does it begin "And these are" and not "These are" without the word "And" which is the letter vav in Hebrew?

RaSHI refers to the letter vav in the opening verse and says, "As the first are from Sinai, so these are from Sinai". RaSHI connects the Ten Commandments to the laws that appear in this portion. "Do not think", Rashi wants to say, "that at Mount Sinai we were told only "I am the Lord thy God" and "Remember the Sabbath day". "You shall not oppress a stranger" and "You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes" were also said at Sinai. Judaism makes no distinction between ritual and morality. The letter vav meaning "And" serves as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Even so, there are still Jews who insist on looking upwards and not down. A friend told me recently that he had stopped attending his synagogue. He was never a religious man but his three-year-old daughter was killed in a terror attack and he went to the synagogue every week to say kaddish. I asked him why he had stopped going. He answered, "I went to the same synagogue for ten months. A week ago I sat during the service with my legs crossed. Someone came up to me and told me to straighten my legs, that it was not done to sit the way I was sitting. And then I thought to myself: "I've been coming here for ten months. No one ever said Shalom to me. In fact, no one ever asked me why I say kaddish. If the first time someone speaks to me is to tell me that it is forbidden to sit there with my legs crossed, I will not return to that place. I don't wish to pray in a place like that".

Judaism is a blend of heaven and earth. We are asked to look upwards, to rest on the Sabbath, to refrain from eating certain foods, to observe family purity. To the same degree we are asked to visit the sick, comfort mourners, and care for the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. In the Torah there is no difference between heaven and earth. Both sets of commandments come from Sinai.

A few days ago something interesting happened to me. A friend from abroad sent me ten e-mails and I didn't answer even one. The truth is, I didn't answer because I didn't receive even one. A few weeks later, we found that he had omitted one letter of my e-mail address.
He said to me, "E-mail is like the Torah. If one letter is missing, the message does not reach its destination". I thought to myself: that is the value of the letter vav meaning "And" at the beginning of this Torah Portion. If it is missing, the message of the Torah does not reach its destination.

Perhaps it is the most important letter in the whole Torah.

Monday, January 21, 2008


In the Second Person

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

This week we read Parashat Yitro with the Ten Commandments at the center.

There are two distinctive things in the Ten Commandments if compared to the laws of other peoples. The first is that in the Ten Commandments, the commandments are "categorical" with no punishment cited. "Thou shalt not steal"' for example is a categorical commandment, unequivocal and undebatable.

I will now think as a parent.

I can explain to my daughters why it's worthwhile to go to bed early. And although I am fully aware in advance that my explanations won't convince them, I can give my reasons and I can be flexible.

However, there are times when an order is unequivocal and there is no room for "negotiations". If they try to put a needle into an electric socket, I can explain the reasons that this is forbidden but I can never be flexible…

In other codexes of law, for example the laws of Hammurabi in the 8th century B.C.E., there is no such thing, punishment plays a central role in the system and it makes no difference if it is the death penalty or any other physical punishment.

The main point is that it is the punishment that explains the command. While in the "Ten Commandments", the command is absolute.

The second point that differentiates the "Ten Commandments" from other legal systems is the phraseology. The "Ten Commandments" are phrased in the second person and that is a relevant and revolutionary point. In the same way that we relate to G-d in the second person (in saying the blessings we say "Blessed art Thou O Lord our G-d" and not "Blessed is He") thus the Ten Commandments are also phrased in the second person and say "Thou shalt not steal" in the second person. The Ten Commandments have been given such an honored place in Judaism because they are a kind of an intimate conversation, face to face between The Holy One and his people.

We are not speaking here about an impersonal form of address where the responsibility for implementation falls on everyone in general but on a form of address in the second person that is addressed to each and every individual in the Jewish people.

The style shows us that the laws apply to everyone – the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, on our neighbor but primarily on myself…

It is always easier to think that the sinner is the one on the other side of the street.

Previous Drashot

Yitro 5766 – Selective Holiness