The sidra that contains the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, is named for a non Jew, a pagan priest, a man who is grandfather to Moses’ sons and who teaches Moses about the importance of Justice not being delayed. He is also the man who recognises that the God of the Hebrews is the most powerful of all gods. And yet this man walks away just before the moment when the collective People of Israel is formed by the creation of its covenant with God. He, whose name means ‘abundance’ or ‘plenty’ seems to walk out of history and yet we remember him and all he did for Moses, we honour his name in the very sidra where God meets and forms the unbreakable covenant bond with the Jewish people. Without Yitro, his care and protection, his teaching of religious rituals, Moses may never have come to understand what he saw at the burning bush, and Israel may never have understood what happened at Sinai, and yet Yitro himself did not seem to need this relationship – as a priest himself he clearly had his own connection with God.
When God does speak to Israel, we immediately face a curiosity in the text, for the word God begins with is strange – The introduction of God to the people is with the word: “I am” but using a rare four letter root “Anochi” instead of the more usual word “Ani”. The Talmud has a beautiful explanation for why God is using such a strange word to introduce God to the people:- Rabbi Yochanan explains that this word must be an acronym for Ana Nafshi Ketovit Yehovit – which means “I wrote My very soul and gave it to you” or “I am giving you My soul in writing” (Shabbat 105a).
The Ten Commandments are neither ten, nor are they commandments. They are, as the Hebrew nomenclature makes clear to us, statements. Some of them could be understood to be commandments, and indeed the famous biblical commentator Rashi sees them as the basic categories for the 613 commandments traditionally said to be in Torah, but to see them only as demands on us would be to miss out on the richness of the event.
Traditional commentators wrestle with the notion of commandments, and what it means for our ongoing understanding of God. Some say that the word “Anochi” might be said to be a commandment (Know that I am God), but equally others claim that it couldn’t yet be a commandment, as to be commanded one must first believe in (or at least acknowledge) a commander, and the speaking of the word Anochi therefore can only be the first moment of such understanding, and therefore the prerequisite to the mitzvot. Only if one believes in the existence of God can the further teachings of God have meaning.
So ‘Anochi’ is really a portal into relationship with God, it is the liminal moment when we understand that God exists. This cannot be commanded, it must be experienced in some way by the soul who chooses to do so. A colleague told me recently that during her rabbinic training she confided to one of her teachers that she was finding herself unexpectedly moved, gripped by she knew not what. The response “If you show an interest you will be taken seriously” was, she said, the most frightening thing she ever heard, and one that has stayed with her to this day. She had entered the portal of “Anochi”, had understood that when studying Torah she encounters God’s soul in writing.
There is so much more to mitzvot than “the ten commandments”, so much more to how we are in the world than “good behaviour” or kindness or charity to others. Once you search for “Anochi” seriously, you will be taken seriously and you will see the world through different lenses and over a different timeframe. My guess is that Yitro had already done this in his own way, he did not need Sinai, he was already in his own particular relationship with God, his life was yeter, more than enough, filled with its own meaning and understanding. But he opened the portal for us to find our way, our Jewish way. For each of us must find God, and make our relationship with God, in our own way, and each must understand that “Anochi” has many ways of relationship just as there are many different peoples of the world.