The most important commandment | Parashat Yitro

One of the most common and interesting “exercises” in contemporary religious education invites participants first to read and study the “Ten Commandments” or, as they are known in Hebrew, “Aseret Hadibrot” – “the ten utterances.” Once familiar with these ten statements, students brainstorm their own individual or collective “Ten Commandments for Our Time.”

A fascinating journey into the priorities and values of participants, this activity also reveals the essence of a core debate in Jewish tradition and in contemporary society. Are these ten Commandments, first appearing in Parashat Yitro truly special, worthy of elevation above all the other teachings of Torah? Are they more important than the rest of the 613 Mitzvot traditionally identified in Torah? Are the Ten Commandments transcendant of Torah completely, representing a beautiful and compelling code of ethics for all people, in all time? Or are they simply ten Divine utterances among many, attributed as given directly on Mount Sinai to the Jewish People through Moses? If so, is there room for change, evolution, or addition to this essential list of commandments? Or are they complete, unchanging and permanent? Are they enough?

Much debate has ensued about the place of the Ten Commandments in Jewish teaching. Are they a sufficient and inclusive expression of our most important values today? Is something missing? Scholars and sages throughout the ages have argued about this, both within Jewish communities and outside Judaism.

Some quote Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the most important commandment in Torah. Still others point to the words of Shema as the most important commandment in Torah, suggesting that believing in one universal God, loving God, teaching the next generation to believe in and love God, and acting in accordance with God’s teachings are the core commandments in Torah.

Others offer alternatives. The well-known Talmudic debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, seeking to teach a prospective Jew-by-choice the “entire Torah while standing on one leg,” results in Hillel’s famous words, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Hillel’s words have been offered by many as the most important commandment in Torah, even though his words do not even appear in Torah.

Of course, there are other arguments as well. The frequency of the biblical commandment to “love the stranger,” expressed many times in Torah in various forms leads some to suggest that this is the most important commandment. The inherent dignity and respect of every human being is certainly a compelling core value.

One thing is certain; while we do not agree on what is most important, each of these commandments and teachings and others, are, in fact critical to living our values. Even more, any attempt to prioritize one teaching, or any single individual’s opinion, is flawed from the start. Ironically, Moses learns this very lesson in Parashat Yitro as well:

“The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening… But when Moses’ father-in-law (Yitro) saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone? …The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well….’ (Exodus 18:13-14, 17-18)

Traditionally understood as a lesson in leadership, as Moses learns the importance of delegation and sharing of responsibility with others, this passage also suggests a more fundamental idea, one that may lead to yet another understanding of the most important Jewish commandment.  Moses learns the importance of listening and sharing and caring about others and their point of view. This is not so surprising. Moses had already exhibited a sort of “radical empathy.” In fact, his empathy may have been the reason God selected him in the first place, at least in the imagination of the midrash.

Commenting on why God chose to appear to Moses while he was shepherding the sheep of Yitro, the rabbis teach:

“Our Rabbis said that when Moses was tending the flock of Yitro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it came to a shady place where there was a pool of water. The kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: ‘I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary.’  So, he placed the kid on his shoulder and carried him. Thereupon God said: “Because you have such mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, you will assuredly tend to my flock Israel” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

What is the most important commandment of Torah? A profound and deep faith that leads us to practice empathy for others, to live with compassion and kindness, to ensure dignity and respect for every human being. Any of these would be enough.

My personal favorite candidate, ever since I learned it as a Bar Mitzvah studying my Haftarah portion, comes from the teachings of the prophet Micah: “You have learned, mere mortal, what is good, and what God demands of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in the presence of God.” (Micah 6:8).

If only we were all fierce agents of justice, loving purveyors of kindness, and filled with humility. This, too, would be enough.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).