Thou shalt not steal!

This week’s portion is Yitro (Jethro), Exodus 18:1 – 20:23. Jethro the Priest of Midyan was Moses father-in-law who was a very well known man in his native country. He was also a man of many names and who tried every faith and theology known to man. Such a man would certainly become jaded about the various religions. But not Jethro. After he heard about the parting of the Red Sea and the miracles of the deliverance from both Egypt and Amalek, Jethro left a comfortable existence, considerable wealth and fame in his native country to join the Israelites in their sojourn through the barren desert.

But if that is not enough, Jethro proved himself to be a consultant and troubleshooter par excellence. Recognizing a huge bottleneck in the legal system, Jethro proposed that Moses constitute a hierarchical legal system whereby only the toughest cases come to Moses. Jethro was in reality the inventor of the modern-day legal system of tiered courts: state courts, federal courts, district courts, courts of appeals and the Supreme court. A true maverick.

Ultimately however, Jethro was inclined to return to his native land after paying his courtesy visit and uniting his daughter and grandchildren, Eliezer and Gershom, with their husband and father. Only the promise of a security blanket and his own parcel of land finally coaxed Jethro to become a full-fledged Israelite.

This weekly portion also describes the evolution of the Jews as the chosen people, culminating with the delivery of the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Fire and brimstone, the Israelites wet their pants when God himself transmitted to them the 10 commandments (well not really, but figuratively for sure).

One of the best-known commandments is Thou shalt not steal! But it will certainly surprise many readers to learn that according to the Talmud, as espoused by the Bible commentaries, this commandment is not related to theft in the classical sense. The commandment to not steal money or goods is recorded in Leviticus – Chapter 19, 11: You shall not steal. You shall not deny falsely. You shall not lie, one man to his fellow.

The commandment of Thou shalt not steal! which appears in the ten commandments is concerned with kidnapping human beings and forcibly selling them as slaves. Or in other words, thou shalt not steal a human being. And how do the commentaries learn this? It’s all about the context. Since the commandments preceding Thou shalt not steal! ( Thou shalt not kill and Thou shalt not commit adultery) are capital crimes, it follows that Thou shalt not steal! is also punishable by death. And since stealing money and goods is not a capital offense, it follows that this commandment is about a theft which is punishable by death.

Shabbat Shira

Yesterday marked Shabbat Shira (Hebrew for ‘song’), which is the customary name of the Sabbath on which we read about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The tale of the exodus is written in the book of Exodus 13:17–17:16, which Jews refer to as the portion of Beshalach (פרשת בשלח ). It is called Shabbat Shira in memory of the song that Moses sang after the parting of Red Sea, during which the Hebrews successfully outmaneuvered the Egyptians who drowned in the sea. After finally ridding themselves of their vicious captors Moses, his system Miriam and the entire nation rejoiced with song and praise to the Almighty their savior.

Not many Sabbaths have a special name like Shabbat Shira. The only other such Sabbaths are: Shabbat Tshuva (the Sabbath immediately preceding Yom Kippur), Shabbat Chazon (the Sabbath immediately preceding the fast of Tisha B’Av), Shabbat Nachamu (the Sabbath immediately following the fast of Tisha B’Av), Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim) and Shabbat Hagadol (the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover). What makes Shabbat Shira even more special is that it is the only specially-named Sabbath which is not linked to any official holy day. The Song of the Sea, Shirat Hayam, is indeed so special that it is recited by observant Jews every day of the year without exception.

One of my favorite commentaries on this Sabbath reading is on Exodus 14:15. And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward. We learn from this that Moses was praying to the Lord that he save Israel. In return, the Lord says to Moses: now, when Israel is in perilous danger, is not the time for praying. Now is the time for action! Tell the Israelites to move forward into the sea!

Now think about this for a moment: you are standing on the shore of a vast sea. You don’t know how to swim. At the rear, a heavily-armed militia is closing in. You can hear the arrows whizzing by, you can hear the hoofs of the horse-led chariots in fast pursuit. Praying is not going to help. But is jumping into a sea any better? Both options spell death.

Later on in the portion we read about the Manna which was the bread that the Israelites ate in their desert sojourn. The Manna is really a code name for making a living. Some of us are fortunate to make a good living, where the money is on the floor. Just bend down and pick it up. Other people are not so lucky and must toil with the sweat of their brow for their daily sustenance. Here too, just like at the shore of the Red Sea, we are confronted with dangers. Prayers alone will not cut it. Action is needed. People need to do their best to make a living. Prayers are always good but must be backed with hard work.

At the end of the portion in Shabbat Shira, the newly liberated nation of Israel faces their first war against the nation of Amalek. Moses appoints Joshua as the joint chief of staff and dispatches him to wage war against the enemy forces. But Moses does not rely solely on military might. Instead, he oversees the military operation on top of a hill, with his arms thrust towards heaven in faithful prayer. The war was won by a combination of strength and belief in the Lord’s capacity for salvation.

Prayer and deeds, belief and action. Arguably a good practice in any situation.

Introduction

INTRODUCTION

The Bible, or Old Testament, is the bestselling book of all time. It is venerated by Jews and Christians alike, and respected, though not necessarily adhered to, by other religions as well.

But Bible readership is declining.

The Bible

The other day, while visiting a busy public library in Miami, I was curious to find out how many potential readers checked out the Bible on their shelf, a voluminous and richly illustrated hardcover book. I shockingly discovered that over a period of ten years, there were only three borrowers. Needless to say, I was puzzled as to why the Bible is neglected, having so much to offer.

There might be numerous explanations, but I venture to propose the following:

  1. The Bible is perceived as a strictly religious scripture, without universal appeal.
  2. Many segments of the Bible deal with issues and topics that can be viewed as anachronistic, unrelated to the modern world of today, for example, the laws of the Torah (Old Testament) guiding animal sacrifices.
  3. The language, style, and words used in the Bible are archaic, and certainly not “reader-friendly.”

I believe the very opposite. In my opinion, the Bible’s narrative is spellbinding, and its messages have eternal bearing and validity, whether one is religious, atheist or agnostic.  So, in writing this book, I was prompted to make the Bible attractive to a wider audience.

The select segments of the Bible chosen for this undertaking generally deal with ethics and interpersonal relationships, hoping they will make us into better, happier persons. 

For strict, practicing religious Jews, the Bible is God’s creation, handed down by Moses to the Israelites, or People of Israel, at Mount Sinai. To them, it’s a sacred inviolable entity, to be rigidly observed. 

For these religious Jews, or indeed Christians, deviation from to the teachings of the Bible, or doubting the validity of any happenings narrated by the Bible, is simply an act of sacrilege, bordering on atheism.

To the non-religious, or questioning doubters, as well as to some archeological researchers, the narratives of Bible have been gradually developed by humans over many centuries. 

But regardless whether the Bible is God-given or not, it is a fascinating, unparalleled creation, which guides the whole spectrum of human existence.

The purpose of this undertaking is to narrate a select collection of the Bible’s salient episodes in a fictionalized novel-like form, which will hopefully appeal to a wide audience of interested readers.