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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

17. I Don't Think The Ten Commandments Mean What You Think They Mean

Updated: Apr 8

What's even better than being special? Being connected.


Parshah Yisro


TL;DR of the Text


Major Themes

  • Moses, Family Man

  • What did it take for people to recognize God’s power?

  • A leader’s duties to their people

  • Corruption and the desire for money

  • Can’t have dignity without agency

  • What’s even better than being special?

  • Meeting people where they’re at

  • Most of our religious leaders take God’s name in vain

  • Reframing the commandment “honor your father and mother”


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Exodus 18:2-5*

“Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, took Zipporah, the wife of Moses, after she had been sent away; and her two sons…came to Moses with his sons and wife.”

So you’re telling me Moses had time to perform the plagues, guide the Israelites out of Egypt, take Joseph’s bones with them, and drown Egypt in the Sea of Reeds, but he didn’t have time to send a messenger to get his family before he left the area forever?


Nice. 


Exodus 18:10-11*

“Jethro said,...’Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods, for in the very matter in which [the Egyptians] had conspired against them…!’”

I still have and will forever have beef with God for the plague of the firstborn and the drowning in the Sea of Reeds, but maybe this is what He was talking about when He said He’d take the Israelites out of Egypt in such a way where everyone would acknowledge His presence. Jethro only recognized God because He punished the Egyptians in the same way they planned to punish the Israelites. 


Pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew babies to drown; God killed all male firstborns and drowned the army. Could He have found a better way? Absolutely. These were juvenile solutions to the problem of the people requiring specific forms of proof to recognize God’s jurisdiction.


Exodus 18:13-16*

“It was on the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood by Moses from the morning until the evening. The father-in-law of Moses saw everything that he was doing to the people, and he said,... ‘Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening?’

Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to seek God. When they have a matter, one comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow, and I make known the decrees of God and His teachings.’”

At face value, Jethro told Moses not to do everything himself, and the young leader did need a lesson in the importance of delegation. However, the language also indicates a subtler point by Jethro, perhaps made unintentionally. 


We can read Jethro’s statement to mean: why are you, as their leader, sitting, while they stand around you all day in supplication? Why do you put yourself on a pedestal compared to them?


Why do you put yourself on a pedestal compared to them? 

Moses couldn’t always be the one to judge the nation individually. A leader needs to judge, yes, but they must also inspire their people and encourage feelings of warmth and gratitude. If the Israelites mainly associated Moses with feelings of guilt, shame, and inferiority, he’d never lead them effectively.


Exodus 18:21*

“‘You shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, God-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money…’”

Only four qualifications are listed, and “despising money” counts as one. Once you feel the desire for money, you’re susceptible to corruption. There’s a big difference between someone who needs money to pay their bills and be safe, and someone who is driven by money outside of their needs. 


A guy once asked me how much money it’d take for me to sleep with my boss. He spoke hypothetically; the person he asked before me said $1 million. I gave him a simple answer - no amount of money. I have everything I need, so why would I need more?


Exodus 18:22-23*

“‘They shall bring every major matter to you, and every minor matter they shall judge… then you will be able to endure, and this entire people, as well, shall arrive at its destination in peace.’”

Here’s the lesson in delegation. Jethro advocated for both Moses and the people of Israel. We’ve all had those bosses - the ones who ask to check a simple email before we send it, and the ones who give us a project, only to tell us exactly how to do it? 


The millennial generation was the first to realize the extent of this psychological burden. Humans need a certain amount of agency to have dignity, and most of today’s corporate structure is designed to remove individual agency.


Humans need a certain amount of agency to have dignity, and most of today’s corporate structure is designed to remove individual agency.

Exodus 18:3-8*

“Moses ascended to God, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel. “You have seen what I did to Egypt…If you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world. You shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.”...

Moses came and summoned the elders of the people…The entire people responded together and said, ‘Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do!’”

If the Chosen One mythos wasn’t strong before, it was undoubtedly gaining steam by this point. Israel still clings to this myth fervently: see this guy characterizing the war in Gaza as an opportunity to teach the world how morally correct Israel is, being a nation of priests and all. 



The reason we’re still battling the “chosen one” concept everywhere in our society - from religion to politics to racism - is because it feels really, really good to be special. 


But it doesn’t hold a candle to feeling kinship with everyone on Earth. 


Women experience a version of this problem at the hands of patriarchy. One of the many things patriarchy excels at is pitting women against each other to compete for success in a patriarchal world. And it feels good for a while, to play by patriarchy’s rules and to be “not one of those girls.” 


But it doesn’t hold a single fucking candle to the feeling of being fiercely connected in solidarity with every woman on the planet.


But it doesn’t hold a single fucking candle to the feeling of being fiercely connected in solidarity with every woman on the planet.

Exodus 20: 1-6*

“God spoke all these statements, saying:...

‘You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem, your God - a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies; but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments.’”

The initial language is interesting - why would God include so many caveats? At first, He didn’t outright prohibit worshiping other gods; He only said you couldn’t “recognize them in [His] presence.” It’s like a parent saying to their kid, “I know you’re going to do this - just don’t do it in front of me.” 


God followed it with commandments against making idols and worshiping alien gods. He addressed the entire assembly of Israel, knowing people had varying degrees of spiritual fortitude. Perhaps He framed the commandment for flexibility; the ones who could withstand the temptation to worship idols would be expected to refrain, whereas those who couldn’t would at least respect God enough to avoid worshiping idols in His presence. 


Also, it was a dick move to have such an immense difference in punishment between God’s “Chosen nation” and His enemies. He shows kindness to Israel but punishes the great-grandchildren of His enemies? God made everyone - enemies included! Again, I think much of the Chosen One stuff is intended to motivate us to unlearn the urge to be special.


Much of the Chosen One stuff is intended to motivate us to unlearn the urge to be special.

Exodus 20:7*

“‘You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your God, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain.’”

Generally interpreted as a commandment against cursing, the logic makes sense when we’re specifically referring to the curses containing God’s name. If you use the name to curse, you might not have enough respect for the concept of God. Fair enough. 



BUT! X, formerly known as Twitter, user @annakasirye identified what is by far the commandment’s most important meaning. Don’t hide behind God as a way to get away with immorality (looking at you, religious leaders.)


Exodus 20:12*

“‘Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your God, gives you.’”

Dennis Prager started a new trend in conservative circles where he laments the evil leftist adult children who have voluntarily cut ties with their conservative parents. Don’t these leftists know they’re commanded to honor their parents?


I’ll take one brief second to celebrate the fact that our younger generations are finally learning enough about psychology to understand trauma and emotional abuse. We’re tackling it! The social pressure, created by religious misinterpretation of this very Torah verse, to stay in abusive family situations, has finally dissipated enough for us to start acting. 


Indeed, how does one honor one’s father and mother, especially in instances of abuse or neglect? If I am the product of my parents, and if they don’t honor me, I honor them by honoring myself. I treat myself with respect, which sometimes includes cutting ties with abusive fathers and mothers. 


If I am the product of my parents, and if they don’t honor me, I honor them by honoring myself.

Becoming an excellent person is the best way for me to honor my father and mother. My character will bring honor to them because they parented me, whether or not they deserve honor for their parental role. 


As long as I don’t humiliate my parents for unnecessary or petty reasons, I honor them by being the best version of myself. If achieving that necessitates removing them from my life, then I’ll do it. 


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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