In competition to determine “the most important parsha” in a particular sefer of Chumash, Yisro would fair quite well as a candidate for Shemos. Indeed, a number of crucially important events transpire in Parshas Yisro, but we shall endeavor to examine herein quite a lesser-known aspect of the parsha. In particular, we shall focus on a Midrash that comments on the giving of the Torah.
The Midrash states that the Jewish people, gathered at the base of Sinai, replied in unison as they were given each one of the Ten Commandments. As God uttered each Divine decree, the Jewish people replied affirming what God had just told them by stating “Hein!”, “Yes!”. God stated, for instance, “I am HaShem, your God”, and the Jewish people replied aloud “Yes!”. And this continued, according to the Midrash, for each of the subsequent commandments.
Yes Or No?
An issue arises, however, when we encounter the negative commandments. How did the Jews reply, exactly, to the Divine proclamation “Do not kill”? It seems more than a little strange to propose they replied with the very same, exuberant “Yes!” to a prohibition of murder or adultery, as they did to the proclamation that “God is One”. On the other hand, it seems equally difficult to propose that the Jewish people replied with an emphatic “No!” to a Divine decree all the same. Is the Midrash to have us believe that God stated “Do not have other Gods before me” and the nation shouted back “No!”?
If neither “Yes” nor “No” work as responses to the negative commandments, though, how are we to understand this most peculiar Midrash?
Indeed, this very issue is brought up in the Midrash itself in the form of an argument between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akivah. Rabbi Yishmael was of the opinion that the Jewish people did, in fact, reply with an emphatic “No!” to the negative commandments, while Rabbi Akivah was of the opinion that they replied with an emphatic “Yes!”. To be sure, all of this is seemingly something of a fundamental question: How is one to affirm a negative, after all? Faced with the prompt “You’re not really going to do that…”, for instance, is one to reply with a “Yes” or a “No”?
As strange, humorous, and a little ridiculous as this entire topic is, we find it difficult to presume that this is all that Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akivah were spending their precious time arguing about. Indeed, given the above conclusion that neither “Yes” nor “No” make sense as replies, how are we to understand this argument at all?
Live And Breath It
Rabbi Shor proposes that, in fact, these two great Sages were arguing about something far more existential and important than a simple question of semantics; namely, the entire premise upon which we observe the commandments of God. For Rabbi Yishmael, when the Jewish people proclaim “No!” to the prohibition of not murdering, indeed, they were saying just that — “No, we will not murder”. For Rabbi Akivah, however, this statement is not enough. Simply agreeing to the negative precept is not sufficient. One must also internalize the positive aspects of even the negative precepts. The “Yes!” of Rabbi Akivah is about internalizing the positive ideas and morals that lay behind the negative precepts as well.
After our time on this world comes to an end — and we are asked to account for our lives — when asked if we have ever murdered someone, all reading this will, I hope, be able to reply in the negative. The “Yes!” of Rabbi Akivah, however, would say not so fast. Perhaps we have not shot anybody during our time on Earth — but how do we treat others? Did we embody and internalize the ideas and morals behind the prohibition of murder? Did we live and breathe the idea that no one life is more important than the next? Did we treat everyone as if all were made in the image of God? Did we truly see all people as being equal?
In short, how are we to answer the question: Why are we not murderers? This is a scary thought! Is it simply because we have never had the need or desire to kill? Because it has never really come up? Why do we not steal? Surely, we have never held a store up at gunpoint, but have we ever taken a bit more than we should have? Have we ever cheated at something? Have we ever treated people inappropriately? The question Rabbi Akivah is asking, implicitly, is do we embody the positive morals that are behind these negative commandments?
We might not be murderers, but are we “murderers”? Simply refraining from the literal act of ending the life of another human being is not enough to say that we have kept the prohibition not to murder. For simply replying “No! We will not murder!” is not enough. We must also say “Yes!” to the entire ethos that goes along with it.