February 12, 1998 / 16 Shevat, 5758

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Yisro

Between ten and seven: A spiritual distinction

A story:

When I taught in Jerusalem, I used to ask the elderly Rabbi Ben Zion Bruk to address my students. His pious demeanor and life experience as a European-born Jew and (wounded) survivor of Israeli wars could say more about faith and trust in G-d than anything I could muster.

The last time Rabbi Bruk did this, he was already too weak to travel, so my class came to his home. Gathering in his high-ceilinged living room, which doubled as a dining room and a study, my students heard one of his customarily lucid talks. One of his main themes was the importance of settling in a city in which scholars of the Torah lived -- in which it would be possible to study the Torah and to live according to it.

Following the lecture, students asked questions.

First question: "What about settling in a location where Judaism is weak and planting it there -- teaching Torah, setting an example, strengthening the commitment of Jews already living there? What about outreach?"

Rabbi Bruk replied: Before I answer, let all the questions be heard.

Second question: "What about the contradiction between struggle and tranquility? You taught that a Jew must achieve a state of tranquility, but also continually struggle for a higher level of Jewish living. Isn't this a contradiction? If so, how is it resolved?"

Rabbi Bruk replied: Before I answer, let all the questions be heard.

I forget the third question. It was similarly profound, and Rabbi Bruk's answer was the same.

Following the questions, Rabbi Bruk repeated them.

He had remembered them perfectly.

Then: silence.

Rabbi Bruk sat there, said nothing.

Students wondered.

Now, Rabbi Bruk was rather short. Even sitting down, he appeared much shorter than I. He turned, looked up at me, and said: "Reb Hillel, not every question has an answer."

Clever opening. Students eagerly awaited the elaboration. They had received the verse, as it were; now they awaited the commentary.


Rabbi Bruk said nothing.

Some 60 seconds passed.

Discomfort. Stirring. An inarticulate mumbling to this effect, "what are the answers, already?"

Somewhat surprised, Rabbi Bruk looked up at me again: "Reb Hillel, lo le-chol she'elah yesh teshuvah -- not every question has an answer."

Finally, the students received the message.

Rabbi Bruk's lecture was over.

Students rose uneasily, politely thanked him.

On the way out, they badgered me:

"What did he mean?"

"Why didn't he answer?"

"When will he answer?"

"Maybe he wouldn't answer us, but he will answer you. Didn't you say he was your teacher? Please check back with him. We want the answers."

For six months my students badgered: What did Rabbi Bruk mean?

Having studied with him for 13 years, I suspect he meant this: verbal answers that resolve genuine quandaries relieve the questioner of the issue. Answers may satisfy, while the questioner needs to struggle.

Answers may simply enable a person to verbalize profundities without really knowing what he is talking about. Sometimes in life a person needs to stretch beyond verbal formulation. He needs to live the ways of the Torah so intensively, to struggle with them so earnestly, that answers to questions about spiritual integrity arise in his own breast.

"Not every question has an answer": by someone else. Sometimes only the individual can integrate the teachings of the Torah into his psyche, family, profession -- his life.

Rabbi Bruk sent those students away creatively disturbed. He reached behind their defenses to agitate their souls, to involve them in profound issues.

In effect, he told them: You want easy answers? You think that intellectual resolution exhausts profound issues? These are large matters; you must work, work at them.

The first of the Ten Commandments is both the most profound contribution that religion has made to humanity and an inadequate intellectual resolution. The command to believe in one G-d -- "I am the L-rd Your G-d" -- is both the most revolutionary idea in history and a comforting platitude, an answer that verbally settles a question and relieves a person of the responsibility to struggle. Belief in G-d holds pride of place in the Ten Commandments -- but does not exhaust the First Commandment. "I am the L-rd Your G-d": this is but the first half of the First Commandment; belief per se is but half the obligation. The second half of the First Commandment signals an entirely new dimension: "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt."

The second half of the First Commandment introduces a new concept: trust in G-d. This is more difficult than belief in G-d, more experiential than intellectual, more in need of human struggle and nurture. Belief that G-d exists is the first half of the First Commandment: I am the L-rd your G-d. Knowledge that G-d intervenes in human history, that He plays a personal role in my life, that He is not only the G-d of the philosophers but the G-d of all people, is the second half of the First Commandment: Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

Belief in the existence of G-d is a philosophical argument and abstract concept; trust in the relationship between G-d and me is a spiritual task and personal effort.

It is one thing to say that G-d exists; quite something else to say that G-d is there for me in prayer, and that I, notwithstanding my sufferings and anguish, still sustain a relationship with Him.

"What did He mean?"

"Why didn't He answer?"

"When will He answer?"

Not every question has an answer. v If all I have is belief in G-d, I have no answer when things go wrong, for there is no philosophic formulation -- no answer -- to human suffering.

But if I have something more than belief in G-d, if I have a relationship with G-d, then indeed He is the Source of all answers. He is genuinely comforting because I reach beyond simple, verbal formulations. I push myself to live the ways of Torah so intensively and to struggle with them so earnestly that answers arise in my own breast.

That inner struggle to be with G-d, that living of the ways of Torah, constitutes trust in G-d, represented by the second half of the First Commandment, "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt" -- Who intervened in your life.

Why are the commandments in this Torah portion singled out as the Ten Commandments? Jewish tradition speaks of 613 commandments. Can any 10 be the most important? As it is, these Ten Commandments exclude everything from ethical imperatives (to love one's neighbor) to spiritual directives (to be holy) to political demands (to free slaves) to sacred disciplines (to fast on Yom Kippur) to ritual requirements (to hear the shofar) to agricultural charities (to leave the corners of the field for the poor).

Why are these 10 singled out?

Maharal of Prague teaches the spiritual distinction between the number ten and the number seven. Seven represents stages -- accumulated meaning, incremental insight, one stage building on another. For example, six days of the week build on each other until they reach the pinnacle, the seventh day, the Sabbath. Ten, on the other hand, represents repetition -- stressing and reiterating the same teaching, until it is firmly implanted.

For example: the Ten Commandments. Each one stresses and reiterates the same two teachings: belief and trust in G-d, And these are the most important teachings of the Torah.

The first three of the Ten Commandments reiterate belief in G-d: 1) to believe in Him; 2) not to have other gods besides Him; 3) not to use His name in vain.

The next seven of the Ten Commandments reiterate trust in G-d: 4) not to work on the Sabbath, trusting in a continued livelihood; 5) to respect parents, since a trusting relationship with them makes possible a trusting relationship with G-d; 6, 7, 8, 10), not to murder, commit adultery, steal, covet -- all of which can be done privately -- since a trusting relationship with G-d means that before Him there is no privacy; and, finally, 9) not to bear false witness. This, though done publicly, can be masked, in effect made private. Therefore, with this commandment, too, the point is trust in G-d -- in masked false testimony there is no privacy before Him.

G-d exists and intervenes in every step of life; the human task is to sense and be buoyed by that intervention. This pivotal teaching of the Torah is reiterated ten times; hence, the centrality of the Ten Commandments.

Midrashic insight, at once poetic and exegetical, fleshes out the meaning of trust in G-d this way:

When Abraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite for a burial plot for his deceased wife Sarah, the Biblical text mentions Ephron's people, "the children of Heth," ten times. The midrash comments that these ten references to the children of Heth correspond to the Ten Commandments. Chaim Walkin (from whom much of this exposition is drawn) explains the connection this way: G-d promises Abraham the entire Land of Israel, yet when Abraham seeks to purchase but the smallest plot of land in Israel -- a burial plot -- he is thwarted by Ephron and his people, the children of Heth, at every turn (figuratively, ten times). Abraham must suffer ten setbacks before he secures, with his own resources, a tiny plot.

What might Abraham claim? That G-d reneged on Him? That G-d's promise of the entire Land of Israel was a sham? That his belief and trust in G-d were foolish?

Yes, Abraham might claim all this, but he does not. Through each of ten setbacks imposed by the children of Heth, Abraham sustains his trust in G-d's promise and concludes the purchase. Now, these ten references to the children of Heth correspond to the Ten Commandments because these references also evoke and reiterate the necessity of trust in G-d.

The final line of the midrash should now be self-explanatory: "Whoever assists the purchase of a pious person (Abraham), it is as if he fulfilled the Ten Commandments."


Beshallah Shira: Undisputed symbols of unity
Bo: Who rules? Man or G-d?
Vayera: The summoning of courage
Shemos: The paths of the hated
Vayechi: I go myself
Vayyigash: Two types of power
Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg