Jethro (Yitro), after whom this parashah is named, is the father-in-law of Moses. He observed Moses' natural leadership style and advised him to delegate some of the responsibility and authority that he arrogated to himself. After several weeks of wandering, the people find themselves at the base of Mount Sinai. God decided that this was the time and place to utter Ten Statements that continue to reverberate loudly despite the passage of millennia.
The Ten Utterances (often rendered "Ten Commandments") occur in the midst of the sixth aliyah:
You shall not bow down to them or serve them-for I the Eternal your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments (20:5-6)
It appears as though these verses portray a God of limited compassion. Even worse, God seems to punish people who are culpable only by virtue of lineage. Where is the God who gives individual freedom along with individual responsibility? The same idea is repeated in Exodus 34:6-7 (although in reverse order, with God's mercy mentioned first). The liturgy on the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur highlights this problem by repeatedly citing only the part of the verse that proclaims divine compassion. This is just one piece of evidence that makes the case for rabbinic reinterpretation of this troubling aspect of God in the Torah.
Many translations (i.e. Hertz, Alter, Fox, RSV and King James) render our impassioned God as jealous God. Is God vengeful or just envious? While Rashi also interprets the Hebrew to mean jealous, he is careful to note that God is not jealous in the same way that a human is jealous. Such typical understandings of jealousy are human frailties. Rather, God is seeking to exact punishment for idolatry. Alternatively, Alter explains, "The Hebrew quana can mean either 'jealous' … or 'zealous,' 'ardent.' … The revolutionary idea of a single God uniting all the realms of creation may be a noble and philosophically bold idea, but it is imagined in ancient Israel in powerfully anthropomorphic terms: God does not tolerate rivals to the hearts of His people" (The Five Books of Moses, 430) What is the source of God's punishment: God's love for us or hatred of idolatry? The reading jealous tempers the tone of the text somewhat.
What about subsequent generations of idolaters? Do they not have an opportunity to make their own religious choices? According to Targum Onkelos, of those who reject Me refers to those subsequent generations only if the children also transgress God's commandments. In this reading, the text speaks to the powerful influence of parents on their children's behavior, rather than children's reward and punishment based on the actions of their parents. Plaut notes that poked avon, visiting the guilt can mean remembering. (478) Perhaps God does not explicitly punish future generations for the previous one's sins, but does hold something of a grudge. This plays into guilt by association that occurs within families or peer groups or faith communities adversely affected by the perverse actions of an individual member. We live in a world of interdependence, of invisible connections that refuse to allow any one of us to live a life of solitary confinement. For example, the manner in which we relate to our natural environment has consequences that extend at least to the third and fourth generation.
Context also adds to our understanding. Verse five and six are in parallel and can be read together. The reward for faith in God is proportionately much greater than punishment for transgression against God. According to Plaut, both of these descriptions of future generations are hyperbole:third and fourth generations indicating "a long time" as opposed to thousandth generation, which he understands as "forever." (478) Tosefta Sotah 3:4 points out that the reward is hundred times greater than the punishment. Whatever the complicated mathematical calculation, the imbalance seeks to provide an incentive for loyalty more than a deterrent against idolatry.
Is this text a threat meant to frighten us or a promise intended to guide us, or both? Sometimes we act out of fear. Other times we act out of love. Apparently, one divine strategy is to do whatever is necessary to produce the desired result. The God of the Tanach is anthropopathic, taking on human emotions, in part because we respond to emotional appeals. If Torah is designed to speak to us, then it must speak in languages that we understand, and prominent, if not preeminent among them is the language of emotion. A God that feels is a God that cares.
Good influence endures much longer than an evil one. The verse teaches that our reputation, for good and for bad, precedes us. Too many people have a long memory for the mistakes of others, longer than for the virtues of others. God is qualitatively different from human beings. God's attribute of mercy outweighs God's attribute of justice. In this respect, we would all benefit from imitating God.
- If an older person in the family does something wrong, how does it affect the younger people? How do your actions affect future generations of your family? What do you think about this? Is it just?
- How are you different from your parents? Have you managed to avoid inheriting any of their bad habits? How were you able to succeed?
- How can a child assert his or her independence, disagree with a parent or choose a different path, while still being respectful and honoring our parents as we are commanded to in Exodus 20:12?
For Further Learning
In the haftarah reading this week, from the Book of Isaiah, we find "Woe is me!" said I, "I am lost; for I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips, yet these eyes of mine have seen the Sovereign, the God of heaven's hosts." (Isaiah 6:5) In this verse, Isaiah speaks of living in a society which has rejected God. Different from the third or fourth generation descended from such a person, he has, himself, joined the idolaters, yet he speaks of having seen God. In a subsequent verse, Isaiah's guilt is gone, and his sin is wiped clean. (6:7) What happens to a person today when he lives among others who challenge the integrity of his beliefs? How can he start to cleanse himself from those influences?
Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426