Parshat Yitro 2019
Today we will deal with two questions. Why are statues and pictures of God forbidden? And why is the justice system introduced before the laws that form the basis of that system?
If we return momentarily to the fateful and momentous first meeting between God and Moshe at the burning bush, we will remember that Moshe asks for God’s name, in case the Israelites in Egypt ask him what is the name of this God who is to take them out of Egypt. God’s answer is a cryptic “I shall be what I shall be. I shall be has sent me to you.”
Dov Elboim makes a fascinating connection between that ambiguous statement and the second commandment in today’s parsha, ‘Do not make a statue or picture’ of God.’ And in other places masks are also included in the prohibition. Elboim reminds us that human faces are dynamic. They are two-way transmitters – constantly absorbing outside stimuli and broadcasting feelings, emotions and internal physical status. The same is true of what is anthropomorphized as God’s face. We have the angry God and the merciful God, the caring God and the vengeful God, just as examples.
The moment we place a mask over our faces or depict God as having one set face, we immediately destroy this dynamic relationship, a relationship in which a change on one side entails a change on the other. Thus the face of God depends on both sides looking at the other without the limitations and mediation imposed by a mask.
Viewed in this way, the problem of idols is not only in materialization of the divine or even in the multiplicity of gods. The problem is in the frozen nature of the image, the frozen face that undermines the very essence of “I shall be what I shall be.” This vague statement essentially means, ‘Whatever I have to be I shall be at the time.’ This potential for infinite variety is denied by fashioning a mask or a sculpture or a painting of God. Conversely, this also limits the ability of the person who believes in this god to change.
Do not make a statue or a picture does not mean we are forbidden from imagining God as an old man with a beard or some strange creature. Only that we cannot set down this image and accept it as the true appearance of God.
If we zoom out from the specifics of the commandments and look at the wider picture, we see that the parsha begins with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, proposing a judicial system that with modifications remains in place to this day – lower, middle level and higher courts to deal with cases of ascending difficulty or importance.
Rabbi Uri Ayalon asks why the description of the administration of justice precedes the laws that were to be administered. In other words, why are we given the plumbing of the judicial system before there’s any water to spritz through the pipes?
Just to remind you, in Moshe’s system, he would sit and adjudicate all day because he was the only one who had direct knowledge of the law, direct access to the highest authority, and therefore the ability to reach the truth.
Yitro’s suggestion implies a justice system in which people who do not have direct access to God are in charge of administering justice. To do so required that the appointed judges meet stringent requirements: They were to be “men of caliber from all the people, who hold God in awe, men of truth, hating gain (or graft)…”
What Rabbi Ayalon, and others, infer from this order – of administration before content – is that Moshe and the people (who said ‘we will do everything that we are commanded’) accepted the principle that a society should be based on a fair and equitable justice system.
Once it was clear that they accepted this principle, it was possible to fill in the details of what constitutes that fair and equitable system. Thus the lesson being taught here is two-sided. One is that there are specific laws that must be implemented, in this case divinely ordained. The other is that the people are capable of taking charge of administering these laws, without divine guidance if necessary. Once agreement is obtained to implement the system, the laws for adjudication can be given.
This widely accepted dyad of principles has been severely taxed in recent weeks. The scandal, where sex became the criterion for being appointed a judge, undercuts the basis of the system and ultimately threatens to destroy our belief in it. Fortunately, the judicial system as a whole has retained its reputation for fairness. For now. However, political sideswipes – at the judicial system and the law enforcement system – can only serve to weaken us as a society. And we need all the social and moral strength that we can muster.